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American Media President Reportedly Granted Immunity in Cohen Investigation; Jeff Sessions Hits Back at President Trump. Aired 3- 3:30p ET
Aired August 23, 2018 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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, and then you wouldn't have put him in.
He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Moments ago, Sessions released this statement in response.
"I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the president's agenda. While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action. However, no nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States."
Joining us now, CNN justice reporter Laura Jarrett.
And, Laura, the president, he has ripped Jeff Sessions on multiple occasions without Sessions hitting back. So, the big question is, why respond today?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, that's right.
He's hit him multiple times multiple different ways on Twitter, but I'm told this is not because he's putting justice in quotes on Twitter and the like. It's because when he gave that interview on FOX, he said that Sessions didn't have control over the department.
And I'm told that's really what struck at the core of the attorney general and caused this brush-back, which is pretty rare. We have only seen him do this once before in February, when the president said that the attorney general was a -- quote -- "a disgrace," calling into question the inspector general, and he lashed out at sort of the prosecutors involved in that matter.
But, otherwise, we really haven't seen Sessions react day to day to the various gripes, the individual cases that the president may raise on Twitter. But I think it's also worth noting, in that statement, that Sessions sort of highlights some of the accomplishments that he is trying to say, look, don't you see? I'm actually carrying out the president's agenda. I'm the one administration official who's actually following through with all of the things that otherwise would make the president pretty happy -- Ana.
CABRERA: Laura Jarrett reporting, thank you.
I have with me David Kris, who worked at the Department of Justice as assistant attorney general for national security, and CNN legal and national security analyst Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent.
First, your reaction, David, to this response from Sessions hitting back at the president.
DAVID KRIS, FORMER ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it's first important to understand what the president means when he accuses Jeff Sessions of failing to take control at the Justice Department, because it's pretty clear what the president means by that is failing to protect the president personally from criminal investigation and prosecution.
And that is part of a pattern of statements by the president that show that he's really interested in advancing his own personal agenda, perhaps at the expense of rule of law and democratic norms.
So, ironically, the president may think that Jeff Sessions is weak by historical standards here in acting this way, but I actually think Sessions has demonstrated some real backbone here in standing up to the president and standing against the politicization of law enforcement.
CABRERA: I mean, Asha, we have seen this president go after his intel community, not just Sessions, but really the entire Department of Justice. He even said in that thought, I'm using quotes these days when I talk about justice.
Do you think that hearing and seeing Jeff Sessions hit back just gave a big morale boost to the department?
ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think that this message from the attorney general was -- you know, has been needed for a long time. I think these are people who can't speak publicly and they depend on their leadership to speak out.
FBI Director Christopher Wray pushed back a little while ago, a few months ago. And I think that it's great that this message has been sent.
And remember, Ana, that every time the president talks about how much he hates the fact that Jeff Sessions recused himself, this is an angle that is being investigated by the special counsel in terms of the obstruction of justice charges for firing James Comey.
So each of these tweets is yet another piece of evidence that goes to this longstanding resentment and grudge that he has that, as David Kris said, that he has not been protected and that he had an expectation that this investigation would go away.
CABRERA: David, what does Trump do now? Because Sessions just made pretty clear loyalty isn't on the table.
KRIS: Yes, well, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in their recent in-person meeting that was supposed to be about prison reform, but I imagine may have addressed other topics.
He can rail and he can storm and he can thunder, but Sessions has made clear, I think, that he's going to hold the line, and the recusal is going to stay in place, which means Rod Rosenstein is going to supervise Bob Mueller, and that's going to go forward, unless and until the president takes really drastic action, Saturday Night Massacre-style, by firing Rosenstein or firing Mueller or revoking their security clearances.
And all of those actions by the president that would really disturb or potentially disturb the investigation have enormous political consequences that could come into play. So I think for now the president is essentially having a tantrum and yelling.
But I'm not sure he's actually going to do anything, and so Sessions will hold the line and DOJ will continue to grind forward.
CABRERA: I mean, the president's comments were apparently the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for Sessions. Why couldn't this be that same thing for the president to actually take action, remove Sessions from office? And, if he did that, Asha, what would that mean for the Mueller investigation?
So it would actually have a significant change in terms of supervising the Mueller investigation. Now, if the president fires the attorney general and replaces him with someone who we assume would not have a conflict that would require that person to recuse, though everyone's connected with Russians these days, so we're not sure, but assuming he didn't recuse or she didn't recuse, then the special counsel would report directly to that new attorney general.
So there would be potentially now no longer Rod Rosenstein in that space.
I do think this investigation has proceeded so far and has gone out to different offices, like the Southern District of New York. It's kind of been block-chained a little bit, that it's kind of out of the president's hands to stop it, but he could potentially put different leadership in place.
CABRERA: David, we had Manafort this week, Cohen, and now Sessions, all in the same week. Do you see this as a potential turning point in the trump presidency?
KRIS: Well, as I have said, it's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for the president when Cohen and Manafort hit, and this business with Sessions doesn't help at all, I think.
It seems to be building towards a potential crescendo, and any number of things could emerge from this tremendous pressure that I think is building. But, in the meantime, the Southern District of New York will carry on with its work and the special counsel will carry on with his work, and the chips will fall where they may.
CABRERA: Stand by, guys. More breaking news.
"The Wall Street Journal" reporting that federal prosecutors granted immunity to American Media chairman David Pecker in the Michael Cohen investigation.
Now, American Media is the parent company of "The National Enquirer." Cohen claims Pecker approved a scheme to buy and kill a story about the alleged affair between Trump and a Playboy model, an offense Cohen says he committed at the direction and coordination of Trump in order to influence the 2016 election.
Remember that secret audio of Cohen and Trump's conversation? Well, David Pecker is at the center of it, so, listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
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.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
CABRERA: Joining us now, CNN's Sara Sidner, who did a CNN special report on these hush money payments.
Sara, tell us more about the relationship between Trump and David Pecker.
SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, what's interesting is if -- all you have to do is sort of look -- as you're going in the grocery store and you look over at "The Enquirer," you will notice early on during the campaign, that it was all negative toward Hillary Clinton and it was all glowing towards Donald Trump.
That should tell you something. Usually, tabloids -- everybody gets a little bit of negativity in tabloids in general. But here's what has been sort of put out there and alleged, that basically if there was a negative story about Donald Trump, something that could hurt him, and David Pecker was able to get that information, that the idea was to try and quash it, try to keep it out of the newspapers by going and paying someone for the information, telling them that they were interested in the story, and then killing the story, called catch and kill.
You go out, you say, we're really interested in your story, and the person says, OK, great. You say, look, we're going to pay you a few thousand dollars or however many thousands of dollars for your story. They sell their story. Then they can't tell the story to anyone else because they have literally sold their story to "The Enquirer" and signed documents as such, and then "The Enquirer" just never happens to publish it.
Now, they have in the past said, look, we have never done this, we just didn't find the stories credible. But the Karen McDougal case is a problem. And her own attorney, back when she sued them, Peter Stris, at the time had made this allegation very clearly, saying, look, she went to them with the story. They told her that they were going to do all these things for her and they never abided by the deal that they made.
And then he said, look, and it's clear that Michael Cohen and David Pecker somehow got together on this deal and decided to kill her story.
Obviously, it would have been embarrassing to the president that a Playboy Playmate had an affair with him, allegedly, back in 2006-2007, remembering that this was at the time that Stormy Daniels also said she had an affair with the president.
That story as well could have come to their attention. But, at this point, what it looks like is that David Pecker was instrumental in keeping stories out of his newspaper and out of other people's newspapers and television stations, because he would pay for the stories, and then allegedly just hold on to the information and keep it from the public.
CABRERA: Do we know what kind of information the prosecutors asked Pecker about, given he was subpoenaed by the Southern District of New York, and now "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that the prosecution gave him immunity?
SIDNER: It -- we don't know for sure, obviously, but I think if you look at the Karen McDougal case in particular, that case is already out in the public sphere.
It's something that Michael Cohen certainly has talked about. He talked about the two women and the two payments., the $130,000 payment that was for one woman who we all know now is Stormy Daniels, and the $150,000 payment made to another woman, who we all know now was Karen McDougal, the former Playboy Playmate.
And so we can guess that certainly the Karen McDougal case is definitely going to play a role in this. And depending on what he says, I mean, Donald Trump may be very, very nervous at this point, when you have these different people who have been in his -- his life who are now speaking with the prosecutors and being given immunity in this case.
CABRERA: Sara Sidner, thank you.
Much more on David Pecker's deal with the feds and the impact this could have on Trump. Next, our legal analysts will weigh in.
Also, a juror in the Paul Manafort trial is now speaking out, revealing what happened behind the scenes during those intense deliberations, including how one holdout juror prevented guilty charges on all the counts.
And President Trump now making the case against his own impeachment, warning -- quote -- "Everybody would be poor" if he were forced out. Is this governing by fear? We will discuss.
CABRERA: Let's get back to our breaking news.
"The Wall Street Journal" reporting that the head of the publishing company that owns "The National Enquirer" has been granted immunity in the case against Michael Cohen. Cohen says he worked with David Pecker to kill a story about an alleged affair between Trump and a former Playboy model.
I want to bring back our legal analysts, Asha Rangappa and David Kris.
Asha, CNN also reporting that David Pecker gave federal prosecutors the details about the payments and he told prosecutors Trump had knowledge of these payments. How big is all of this?
RANGAPPA: This is pretty big.
We know that Michael Cohen pointed the finger at President Trump in court and said that, you know, he did his actions at the direction of the president. So if they are getting actual documentation to corroborate that, that is going to be a big problem for the president in terms of, you know, being complicit in a conspiracy or agreement to commit a crime.
There are a couple other ways he could also be liable. If any of these people who singed these -- or gave away their stories do what McDougal did, and decide to sue, to say, this was a fraudulent contract, there was no meeting of the minds, these people knew they were never going to publish my story, and if those lawsuits proceed, then the president is then in danger of potentially being deposed, if he can't get out of that.
Finally, we don't know the contents of these stories. There could be -- you know, there have been allegations that some people, some women did not consent, for example, that made allegations against the president. If those are the kind of stories that are buried, and Pecker can corroborate those, those could be big problems for the president.
CABRERA: David, the fact that prosecutors gave him immunity, David Pecker -- and this is, again, according to "The Wall Street Journal," what does that tell you, that he got immunity? Does it tell you that he has some kind of smoking gun?
KRIS: Doesn't necessarily tell you he's got a smoking gun, but it does tell you that he has potential liability, which is not surprising, given the scope of the offenses and the way Michael Cohen and the government described them in the documents and in the in-court proceedings.
The scope of liability here, especially when you add in aiding and abetting in conspiracy, is pretty broad, and he was pretty clearly involved in important aspects of it.
And I totally agree with Asha that this is quite significant because it's going to add a second witness who can corroborate the documents and Cohen's statements in any subsequent investigation or prosecution.
Cohen's got tremendous access, but a lot of baggage. Pecker, I think, may have not quite the same level of access, although he appears to have a good deal of it, and much less baggage.
CABRERA: Asha, are we going to see more investigations here in New York?
RANGAPPA: I think so.
I mean, you know, they wouldn't have proceeded this far with Michael Cohen, you know, if they weren't really serious about it. Whether it stops at Michael Cohen, you know, I find that -- I would be surprised if it did and if this didn't lead to more. Whether it leads to the president, I think, you know, the Department of Justice isn't going to indict a sitting president.
And I believe that, if it got to -- if it actually reached the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it would probably go to main Justice as a special case to be handled.
CABRERA: David, is this another case in which Trump's words are coming back to haunt him, his ever-changing stories regarding these hush payments?
KRIS: Yes, there's no question that all of the conflicting and evolving web of statements that he and his closest proxies have been making could have both legal significance and, more importantly, I think, political significance.
At some point, some people are going to become sort of fed up or disenchanted with the constantly shifting positions. And the more that he says, you know, the more that can be used against him. Asha is absolutely right. They're probably not going to indict the president, in keeping with DOJ policy, but I think it could be the case that he becomes an unindicted co-conspirator in some future charges.
It's very interesting, in the documents themselves, the information to which Cohen pleaded guilty, the president is not singled out. It's only in Cohen's own statements orally in court that the president was identified.
But I could imagine a new round of charging documents coming out which do name the president, once they have Pecker lined up and locked in.
CABRERA: So, we do know that New York State Tax Department is taking a look at Cohen following this federal indictment, plea deal.
David Kris, and Asha Rangappa, thank you both. We really appreciate your expertise in helping us understand and really digest these latest developments.
Up next: President Trump, trying to distance himself from Michael Cohen, claims that crimes aren't really crimes, and he says he's done an A-plus job so far as president. We will break down the wildest lines from this morning's interview in just moments.
CABRERA: Following the stunning news that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty on multiple tax and bank fraud charges, and that President Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, the president sat down for his first interview about these developments with FOX News.
Now, some of his comments were kind of all over the place about what happened to each of these men and about his own performance in the White House. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS: What grade do you give yourself so far?
TRUMP: So, I give myself an A-plus. I don't think any president has ever done what I have done in this short -- we haven't even been two years. Biggest tax cuts in history. Soon to be two unbelievable Supreme Court justices.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: CNN politics reporter Chris Cillizza is here with us now with more of the wild comments from the president's interview.
Chris, take it away.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Let me say this segment, I give myself an A-plus, and it hasn't even started yet.
CILLIZZA: OK, Ana, I'm going to run through -- I posted a thing on CNN.com that goes through a lot of the lines that Donald Trump said in that FOX interview that are worth noting.
I want to highlight three, because we don't have unlimited time. I want to highlight three here. First, I want to start. We will play the sound of Donald Trump talking, broadly speaking, about, I believe, Michael Cohen. Let's play that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
EARHARDT: Did you direct him to make these payments?
TRUMP: He made the deal. He made the deals.
And, by the way, he pled to two counts that aren't a crime, which nobody understands. I watched a number of shows. Sometimes, you get some pretty good information by watching shows. Those two counts aren't even a crime. They weren't campaign finance.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Well, someone doesn't understand something, Ana, and it's Donald Trump and campaign finance law. He's trying to draw this distinction somehow between the fact the money wasn't given from the campaign to Cohen to pay off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal; it was given personally.
Doesn't matter. That's an illegal loan. And, remember, when he is asked directly in that clip, did you direct Michael Cohen to do this, he says, he made the deals. That's not exactly the same thing. So that's Cohen part one.
Let's play Cohen part two, Donald Trump talking about his personal relationship with his former attorney.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
EARHARDT: Michael Cohen, tell me about your relationship with him.
TRUMP: Well, he was a lawyer for me for -- one of many. You know, they always say the lawyer, and then they like to add the fixer.
Well, I don't know if he was a fixer. I don't know where that term came from. But he's 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.
I understood Michael Cohen very well. He -- well, it turned out he wasn't a very good lawyer, frankly, but he was somebody that was probably with me for about 10 years, and I would see him sometimes. (END VIDEO CLIP)
CILLIZZA: If he wasn't a very good lawyer, why was he Donald Trump's personal attorney for almost a decade?
Look, Donald Trump has done this before, Ana. We saw this with Paul Manafort, who was convicted earlier this week, who was Donald Trump's campaign chairman. I barely know him. We saw it with George Papadopoulos, foreign -- former adviser to Donald Trump, who has already pled guilty in the Mueller probe, just a coffee boy.
This is the kind of thing he does. But make no mistake, we saw Michael Cohen. He was making -- he set up a shell company to make payments to two women making allegations that Donald Trump had affairs with them in the 2000s. He did this to silence them, to influence the election in the run-up to the 2016 election.
How do I know that?