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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT
AP: National Enquirer Stored Damaging Trump Stories In A Safe; Sessions Fires Back At Trump In Unprecedented Statement. Aired 7-8p ET
Aired August 23, 2018 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[19:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "The Situation Room". "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Out front next, another Trump insider turns on the President. National Enquirer Publisher David Pecker, a longtime Trump protector, reportedly cooperating tonight with investigators. One of Pecker's former lieutenants with deep knowledge of the tabloid's tactics is out front tonight.
Plus, more breaking news. The New Yorker reporting about a memo circulated in the Trump White House accusing Obama officials of a conspiracy against them. And Trump voters weigh in on the president's legal whoas. What is the red line for them? You may be surprised. Let's go out front.
HARLOW: Good evening. I'm Poppy Harlow in tonight for Erin Burnett. Out front tonight, breaking news. Turning on Trump. A longtime Trump ally and protector is the latest person to start cooperating with federal prosecutors, that according to the Wall Street Journal. We're talking about David Pecker. He is the publisher of the tabloid, the National Enquirer.
The Journal is reporting that Pecker has been granted immunity by prosecutors and source tell CNN he is now corroborating Michael Cohen's story that President Trump did have knowledge of Cohen's payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Separately, Cohen said under oath, he made the payments under the President's direction. A charge the President denies, though Trump's story as to when he first knew about the payments keeps changing and changing.
Now, Pecker's National Enquirer has been doing Trump's dirty work, according to the New York Times. The tabloid's tip line was turned into a trip wire. Any tips that were bad for Trump were caught and killed. The Enquirer also endorsed Trump during the 2016 campaign, as you'll remember, and relentlessly attacked his political opponents.
Just look at some of these covers. Hillary's full medical file, six months to live, Ted Cruz's father linked to JFK assassination, and the list goes on. For a president who likes to rail against what he calls fake news, he certainly had no problem praising this publication.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The National Enquirer did a story. They actually have a very good record of being right.
I've always said, why didn't the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards and O.J. Simpson and all of these things?
I mean, you can't knock the National Enquirer. It's brought many, many things to light, not all of them pleasant.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: Kaitlan Collins is out front at the White House tonight. And how many things the National Enquirer perhaps did not bring to light about the President?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's the big question, Poppy. And no response from the President yet on this news about David Pecker, but judging from what he said about those who strike bargains with prosecutors and how it ought to be illegal, it won't be pretty when he does. Now, David Pecker is someone who was very close to the President and Michael Cohen, his former attorney, who implicated him in that crime this week, saying that he was the one who directed him to pay those two women, who alleged that they had affairs with him. David Pecker played a big role in covering up embarrassing stories about the President during the campaign, and clearly they think he has worthwhile testimony if they are giving him immunity.
Now, Poppy, the question is, what could be at stake here? What does David Pecker know? Whether or not that other people that were involved in making these payments to these women to keep them silent about the affairs that they say they had with the President, or if he knows of other women that these payments, similar payments like this were made to. What we do know, Poppy, is that David Pecker is in a very similar position that Michael Cohen was in. Close to the President, knows embarrassing, potentially compromising information about them. And now he seems to be ready to put that information into the hands of prosecutors, Poppy?
HARLOW: He does, indeed. Kaitlan, thank you for the reporting.
Out front now, Stu Zakim, he is the Lead Corporate Communications at American Medic Inc. which owns the National Enquirer, Carrie Cordero, former Counsel to the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security, April Ryan is also with us, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. Thank you, one and all.
And Stu, let me begin with you, you worked there -- you worked hand in hand with David Pecker. We know how close he was to the President for so long. I mean, he would even, you know, rent out Mar-a-Lago for AMI board meetings. Did you ever foresee Pecker turning on Trump?
STU ZAKIM, FORMER SVP OF CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS, AMERICAN MEDIC INC.: No. I must say, I didn't. But, however, as a corporate communications, crisis communications person, I think Pecker is kind of doing the right thing right now. Look at the options that he has available to him. He cooperates or he faces running away from the subpoena. When he cooperates, it ends the story. It doesn't continue. So he --
HARLOW: But that's how close they were. You never thought he would turn?
ZAKIM: Never thought. But one thing I must say, when it comes to David Pecker, the most important thing to him is business. It supersedes friendship and loyalty.
HARLOW: OK. Well there you go. Also on this, just breaking tonight, minutes ago, the Associated Press is reporting that the National Enquirer kept a safe with documents on hush money payments and other killed stories that were damaging specifically to Trump. A safe. Do you know anything about that?
[19:05:01] ZAKIM: I actually don't know anything about it. I haven't been at the company for quite a while. But then again, it wouldn't surprise me. Because when you have ammunition, it gives you a lot more ability to get to people who you want -- David Pecker owns a stable of publications.
ZAKIM: It's not just the National Enquirer. And there's actually been stories of him using -- killing a story in the Enquirer to get someone to do something with his other publications.
HARLOW: All right. So Carrie, let's talk about the law here. I mean, at the same time that the National Enquirer was catching and killing these stories about Trump, it was also taking on his opponents, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, we just laid all of this out. Where is the legal line here? Where is the legal issue here that could cross the line into campaign finance violations by David Pecker, by the publication?
CARRIE CORDERO, FMR. COUNSEL TO THE U.S. ASST. ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: Well, the key issue, Poppy, in the way that it has been laid out in the plea documents for Michael Cohen is that AMI is alleged to have -- well, the documents don't charge AMI in any way.
CORDERO: But the story that's laid out is that they would have made a illegal contribution. So companies can't make donations directly to campaigns. They can't make campaign finance contributions. And so, by paying the women, in order to suppress the stories, in order to affect the election. And that's the key that has come out from the Cohen documents, that Michael Cohen is saying they made these payments to the women in order to affect the election --
CORDERO: -- then that is what takes AMI's behavior and activities out of the realm of normal press activities or normal news gathering activities and into the realm of potential campaign finance violations.
HARLOW: And Michael Cohen said that under oath this week. April, to you.
HARLOW: I want to quote a former staffer at AMI who told Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker when he did this big profile on Pecker in AMI just a few months ago, "In theory, you would think that Trump has all the power in that relationship, but in fact Pecker. It's Pecker that has the power -- He has the power to run these stories. He knows where the bodies are buried". Does Pecker have the upper hand on the President here?
APRIL RYAN, W.H. CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Pecker has the upper hand and the President is not happy about that. You know, anytime that you dance with the devil or know something about what someone is doing, that person doesn't necessarily want it to be told. And right now, it's about David Pecker trying to save his own skin. Because how deep is David Pecker? I mean, this President talks about -- and Poppy, you said it. He talked about fake news and crafting news. And he, indeed, himself, as a civilian, was crafting news, killing stories, and smearing people's names.
This does not bode well for this President. I mean, you don't know how far this goes. And it's like every day, what level of crazy are we in? What level of reality show, White House reality are we in? I mean, it just keeps going and going. This President has something to fear. He has something to fear.
HARLOW: Let me read to you, Stu, something from Gus Wenner, who sold Us Weekly to David Pecker. And this is what he told The New Yorker about a discussion that he had with Pecker regarding then citizen Trump. He said, quote -- this is what Pecker was saying about Trump, OK? "He was painting Donald as extremely loyal to him and he had no issue being loyal in return. He told me very bluntly that he had killed all sorts of stories for Trump."
You worked there hand in hand, leading communications. Do you have any sense of other stories that would not reflect well on the President that were killed or caught and killed by Pecker, by AMI?
ZAKIM: Well, over the course of the relationship?
ZAKIM: Sure there were stories that were caught and killed., because when David Pecker would take care of his friends. So if you were a buddy of his, yes, he would look out for you and used his ability to squash to those kinds of stories.
HARLOW: So you think that -- do you think there are more?
ZAKIM: I don't know. Once again, I haven't been there in a while, so I can't make suppositions about that, but I wouldn't be surprised.
HARLOW: Carrie, Pecker has reportedly, as we said, that the top (ph) granted immunity by federal prosecutors, right? So clearly they think that he has something worth granting immunity. They don't do that lightly. And depending on the scope of this agreement, right, this plea agreement, I mean, what does it tell you that he may have that could be valuable to them that they would be willing to give him immunity? And also, could they force him to discuss more than just the two payments Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels? I mean, could they say, look, you're cooperating now, which means you have to cooperate with us on all fronts?
CORDERO: Well, the granting of immunity again would have to be in the public interest. So there actually are guidelines that the prosecutors would have to file where they'd have to weigh, is it in the public interests for this person to be granted immunity?
CORDERO: And then the details of that would be -- would depend on the specific agreement that the prosecutors would have worked out with Mr. Pecker's lawyers and AMI.
[19:10:03] And so I don't think we quite know enough publicly about what the scope of that immunity agreement is. In other words, whether he has agreed to provide information discreetly about these two particular women and their cases that are described in the Cohen documents or whether his immunity agreement is much more broad. But the -- one other point, the important piece about what he has potentially to provide with respect to the Cohen document -- what's in the Cohen documents about the two women is whether or not Donald Trump knew that the purposes of the payments was to affect the election. The timing is certainly suspicious.
CORDERO: As it was October and close to the election. But whether or not Mr. Pecker actually can give prosecutors that information would be very important.
HARLOW: Very important. So, April, as we all remember, last June --
HARLOW: -- MSNBC Hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, they claimed -- they went on the air and they claim, look, we were threatened by the White House, they said. They were told, according to them, if they didn't apologize to the President for some of their critical coverage, the National Enquirer would run some hit pieces on them and their former marriages, right?
HARLOW: Essentially, they were saying, this is blackmail. Just listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST: We got a call that, hey, the National Enquirer is going to run a negative story against you guys. And it was, you know, Donald is friends with -- the President's friends with the guy that runs the National Enquirer. And they said, if you call the President up and you apologize for your coverage, then he will pick up the phone and basically spike the story.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: Well, they didn't do that. And April, as you know, the National Enquirer did run some negative stories about them. I mean, this, this sort of dirty way of doing business was all out in plain sight.
RYAN: Dirty way -- this is street politics. This is a street -- this is not even politics. This is a street game. Let me get something on you so I can hold you at bay and puppeteer you. You know, Poppy, this is something that I'm very familiar with. You know, myself and two others were told that there were dossiers on us. This is what they try to do when they want to put you -- bring you in control.
This is an administration and formally a civilian organization and circle of friends who tried their best to keep you in line. This is what this administration does. They look up things on you, try to get dirt on you, and then try to smear you. The bottom line is, you know, this is what they do, this is not politics that we know. This is what Donald Trump, who was a ruthless businessman who is now President of the United States and has not necessarily changed, this is what he does. This is what he does. And if you see it one time, believe it.
HARLOW: Stu, bottom line. I mean, you're the one on this television screen, none of us have worked with David Pecker, you have, very closely with him, managing crises.
HARLOW: If you're the President tonight, you are worried, extremely worried, or not worried?
ZAKIM: I would be kind of worried. I do think at the end of the day, however --
HARLOW: Kind of?
ZAKIM: -- Pecker will respond to what's better for him, not what's better for Trump. So I guess as he evaluates all the things that are being presented to him, he'll make the choice that is better for David Pecker. And that's always guided them. He's a survivor. The guy has outlasted many expectations of his demise and he --
ZAKIM: -- always lands on his feet.
HARLOW: Fascinating conversation. Thank you.
ZAKIM: Thank you
HARLOW: Appreciate you all for being here, April, Carrie and Stu.
Out front next for us, Jeff Sessions fighting back tonight against Trump like never before. My next guest, a longtime friend of Sessions. What set the Attorney General off today?
Plus, breaking news, The New Yorker reporting Trump's advisers have circulated this memo accusing former Obama staffers of engaging in a conspiracy theory against them. The reporter who broke the story is out front.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: And Congressman Duncan Hunter leaving court after pleading not guilty to charges that he and his wife stole $250,000 in campaign funds for a lavish lifestyle. Is Hunter blaming it all on his wife? Ahead.
[19:17:50] HARLOW: Tonight, Jeff Sessions firing back at President Trump like never before. The war of words breaking out after these comments by the President about his Attorney General.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I put an Attorney General that never took control of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions. Never took control of the Justice Department and it's sort of an incredible thing. 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)
HARLOW: Within hours, Sessions slammed those remarks saying in part, "I took control of the Justice Department the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success effectuating the President's agenda. While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Justice Department will not be improperly influenced by political considerations". Wow.
Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill with more. Awkward alert, he then went to the White House for a meeting face to face with the President. OK, there's that. And then there's a flurry of reaction on Capitol Hill tonight to all of this. What are you hearing?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Poppy, one of the most interesting elements to the day, we saw the first kind of crack in what had long been a united front in Republicans on Capitol Hill saying, please don't do this. It's not worth it for a myriad of reasons. But Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee said after the election, not now, but after the election, it is probably time for a new Attorney General.
I will note, though, Poppy, he does not speak for all Republicans. And frankly, he was pretty much on his own there. Take a listen to some of the senators that I ran in to today.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: There would be a concern about the domino effect, you know, what happens then to Rosenstein? Is this a way to go after the Mueller investigation? So, it's a big concern.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think it would be a mistake and I don't think it would be good for the country.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: He's a man of integrity. I've worked for him 20 years up here and you get to know people. And I wish him the best.
MATTINGLY: Now, Poppy, let me explain the behind the scenes here, one that's really been prevalent for the last couple of months, and that is, what the fallout would be here. Politically, it would essentially shut down the Senate.
[19:20:04] You heard Senator Jeff Flake talk about the ramifications for the Russia investigation. Firing somebody who's recused and trying to install somebody who wouldn't be recused from overseeing the Special Counsel. Democrats would lose their minds and Republicans would essentially never be able to get somebody confirmed.
Obviously, you have the political fallout shortly before a midterm election, that's the problem as well. I think the most interesting element of all of these, Poppy, as you mentioned it, the Attorney General was at the White House today for a prescheduled meeting. What we are told from both White House sources and Justice Department sources, is the issue never even came up. So as you noted, kind of awkward. And this is a dance that's been going on now for a couple of months.
The big difference today, as you saw the Attorney General fire back. And interestingly enough, in that meeting, the President more or less sided with the Attorney General on a separate issue in terms of the future of criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill. One thing we know for sure, the vast majority of Republicans including Senate Republican leadership do not want the President to do anything here. We also know that this fight is most likely going to continue, because it certainly hasn't held off pretty much on a weekly basis sort of the course in the last couple of months, Poppy.
HARLOW: That is true. All right, Phil, appreciate all the reporting and getting that sound from Republican senators on the Hill.
Out front now, Politics Editor for The Times, Patrick Healy, and Willie Huntley joins me, an Alabama Attorney who has known Jeff Sessions since 1997. Thank you both for being here this evening. And William, I mean, you've known the A.G. for the better part of three decades. He has never before shot back in the way that he did today. And those words were very, very carefully chosen. Seventeen months of relentless attacks by the President. Why was today the straw that broke the camel's back?
WILLIE HUNTLEY, HAS KNOWN SESSIONS FOR OVER 30 YEARS: I think today was the day that Attorney General decided that he finally needed to go public with the support of all of the employees of the Department of Justice, because there's a large number of employees and they needed to know that the Attorney General supported and backed them and would prevent them and protect them from political influence. And that's what he did today. And I think he accomplished that very well.
HARLOW: It was pretty clear he's had it. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham today, as you just heard Phil mentioned, said he believes Trump very well may replace Sessions after the midterms. Here's why. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the President. After the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: Patrick, how significant to hear Lindsey Graham, who, you know, is a high-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who would be a senator, who would have to confirm a new A.G., how significant to hear that from him today?
PATRICK HEALY, POLITICS EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: It's significant. I think there was an assumption that the Senate would stand by Sessions, a former senator himself, one of them, because they also knew that any kind of confirmation fight over the Attorney General would pull in the Mueller the investigation, would pull in Rod Rosenstein. There's so many ripple effects to this and it's not the fight that the Senate wants to have this winter.
HARLOW: Willie, he has been, Jeff Sessions, just a virtual punching bag for the President, OK? Let's remind people, lest they need it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Sessions should have never recused himself. And if he would -- if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else. I'm very disappointed with the Attorney General.
The Attorney General made a terrible mistake when he did this. He made what I consider to be a very terrible mistake for the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: How on earth has Jeff Sessions taken it this long? I mean, and how do these attacks personally impact him, Willie?
HUNTLEY: Jeff is a strong individual. I think he can take a lot of punishment and keep ticking. And I think that's what has happened. I think Jeff's number one focus and number one goal was the Department of Justice and all the employees that are impacted by it. And I think he was withholding any type of response or comment out of respect for the President and in order to respect the employees at the Department of Justice. But I think it probably reached a point where the employees at the Department of Justice probably thought that they had been abandoned. If they would have been subjected to any type of political ramifications.
HARLOW: That's interesting. So you're saying, it's not about him and his feelings, he can take this. It's about the people that work for him. I mean, Patrick, there is a new tone today. Because it's not just this statement saying, you know, I've been running this place since the day I was appointed.
HARLOW: Also, a source tells CNN that the Attorney General said, you know, I'm not going to be quote, blackmailed into supporting a criminal justice reform bill that I don't support, right? He's against taking away mandatory minimum sentencing.
HARLOW: He opposes the President, Jared Kushner, on that. Is it possible in your mind that the President may actually respect Jeff Sessions more after today for that comment, for the statement he put out, because we have not seen Trump punch back?
[19:25:05] HEALY: Right, right. I mean, the worst insult that Trump thinks he can give to someone is sort of questioning their manhood. You know, what kind of man is this? And I think in some ways, sort of seeing Jeff Sessions sort of stand up and basically saying, I'm not going to be improperly influenced, it's a strong pushback --
HARLOW: I'm not going to be your punching bag.
HEALY: You know, I'm not going to be your punching bag, I'm not going to be your whipping boy. You know, at the same time though, the whole notion of improper influence really does bother Trump. He sees all of these people, the Cabinet secretaries and attorney General as working for him. They don't. They work for the American people.
HARLOW: Right. HEALY: But, you know, from his point of view, I think the time had kind of come to say, you know, it was kind of a shot across the bow to the White House, you know, to the Senate. I'm not going to be pushed around, I'm not going to be blackmailed into this. And improper influence and those words were chosen, you know, very carefully.
HARLOW: Totally. Every word of that statement.
HEALY: Right, right. And this is part of the critique criticism of the Trump White House. That essentially, you know, obstruction of justice, part of that is about getting in the face of your enemies and sort of shutting down investigations, pressuring, you know, government officials --
HARLOW: Who do you think he works for? You know, who is the loyalty to? To the American taxpayer that pays you or to the President directly? Willie, before we go, because you have known Jeff Sessions for so long, do you think he would step aside voluntarily?
HUNTLEY: No. I believe Jeff believes in the heart and soul of the Department of Justice. I know this is probably his dream job, because he has an opportunity to impact so many lives. And I just don't think that he would voluntarily step aside. I don't think that is part of the makeup of Jeff Sessions.
HARLOW: Thank you both for being here, Willie. Nice to have you, Patrick, as well.
All right, breaking news next. The New Yorker reporting tonight the Trump White House circulated a memo accusing former Obama staffers of conspiring against them. And longtime Trump supporters on what would change their minds.
[19:30:30] POPPY HARLOW, CNN HOST: Breaking news: a new report tonight in "The New Yorker" revealing that advisers to President Trump believed that former Obama aides were engaged in coordinated attacks to undermine Trump's foreign policy. It is detailed in a memo from last year, a memo called the Echo Chamber, which says in part, and I quote, some of the members of the network refer to themselves as the resistance. They are the same Obama loyalists using the same media outlets and the same allied journalists who promote their narrative of U.S. foreign policy.
OUTFRONT now, one of the authors of that piece, Adam Entous joins me.
Adam, it is fascinating, it is in-depth, and parts of it are just stunning. Tell us more about this.
ADAM ENTOUS, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE: Well, I think the thing that really struck me about the memo was the similarity that it has to what a U.S. military intelligence officer would write about an insurgent network in Iraq and Afghanistan. The language that is used in this memo really, I think, captures the psychology of the author and a certain group of people inside of the Trump White House in early 2017, who felt like they were encircled by opponents, both -- that were both members of the Obama administration, former members, and what they referred to as holdovers -- career professionals inside the White House, who did not leave when the Obama administration left town.
HARLOW: Right. Talk to us about who was named. Ben Rhodes, for example, a very prominent figure in the Obama White House was named throughout this and their response to this.
ENTOUS: Yes. So the, you know, names like you said, Ben Rhodes. It names Collin Kahl, who was an adviser to the vice president, and he's identified in this as the ops chief, the operational chief, again, using the language of a military analysis of an insurgency.
Their reaction is that there was no network, there was no ops center, there was no, you know, organization here that was orchestrating all of this and this was a fevered dream by those in the White House.
That said, you know, in defense of -- slightly in defense of those who believed what was in the memo, they -- you can understand why they felt besieged during this period.
ENTOUS: There were a lot of attacks, there were a lot of leaks that were coming out that were very damaging and hurtful to their agenda that they were seeking to advance.
So, you can sort of put yourself a little bit in their shoes --
ENTOUS: -- and understand why they felt that encirclement.
HARLOW: So given your reporting, what are current members of the Trump administration -- because this was at really high levels. This was circulating around the NSC, what are they saying tonight?
ENTOUS: Well, they're declining comment on this.
ENTOUS: I think the news we had earlier last week about John Brennan and his security clearance, you know, this is a function of a similar dynamic, which is this deep suspicion within this White House, held by this president, but also by some of his advisers, some of whom have since left the White House, that there is a conspiracy against them that involves former members of the Obama administration trying at every turn, working with what they describe as their allies in the media to undermine the administration.
And what Trump did not do in 2017 against John Brennan and other members of the former Obama administration, he seems more willing to do now in 2018, in part because some of the advisers who told him not to retaliate are no longer there.
HARLOW: That's a very important point. Fascinating reporting, important reporting.
Adam Entous, thank you.
HARLOW: OUTFRONT now, Democratic congressman of Washington, Denny Heck. He sits on the House Intel Committee.
Nice to have you this evening.
And before we get into other issues, let me get your take on this new reporting from "The New Yorker".
REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, I don't think anybody should be surprised. This administration has been marked by deep, deep chronic suspicion of others since its beginning. There's another word for that, paranoia. They've been dog whistling to the QAnon conspiracy network since day one.
I think actually what's more interesting about it is, what happens to an administration that is deeply suspicious, if not paranoid and given to conspiracy theories when the pressure really gets on, because clearly, the walls are closing in on this administration. And we have all read or remember what happened to the last days of the Nixon White House, what happened to that -- to the dynamic and the psychology of the people in the inner circle then.
So I think that's the more interesting question. People give in to conspiracy theories. What happens when the heat's on and the heat is on.
HARLOW: All right. I'll get back to your comment on the last days of the Nixon White House in a moment.
[19:35:02] But on this reporting, before we move on, just to push back a little bit -- I mean, you have seen a complete dismantling of every part of the Obama administration's foreign policy that this president can undo without Congress, essentially, right? The Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement -- reason for former officials to fight in a coordinated way?
HECK: Last time I checked, Poppy, they had a First Amendment right to dissent and disagree with that, but that's not really what's being written up about here by Adam in a superb piece of journalism. This is about a conspiracy theory that this is super organized and that all of the dots are connected and that the moves on a daily basis are coordinated by some kind of puppet master, and I know Ben Rhodes, I know Jake Sullivan. |Anything -- nothing could be farther from the truth.
HARLOW: All right. So let's get back to your comment about saying this is a bit analogous to the last days of the Nixon White House. And obviously, you're pointing to impeachment. Today, the president was asked about impeachment. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) INTERVIEWER: If the Democrats take back power, do you believe they will try to impeach you?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES : Well, 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'll tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: As someone who would vote on articles of impeachment, should they be brought in the House? What's your reaction to that?
HECK: So first of all, can I stand up in defense of poor Vice President Pence, who evidently the president -- President Trump is implying would not be able to assume --
HARLOW: Would crash the economy, was the implication there.
HECK: Right. Under then newly ascended President Pence. I'm going to stand up for President Pence. I don't think that would necessarily happen. Look, the only people talking about impeachment are the Republicans. You don't hear Democrats talking about this --
HARLOW: You hear some. You hear some.
HECK: Well, but not on any kind of a scale that would suggest that this is around the corner. Look, I said last April on this network, Poppy, that I actually thought the thing that ought to happen now that is analogous to the Nixon administration is that the president ought to be talking with his god and his family and his self about the possibility of a resignation. Now, what is different between now and then is that we had a couple of very principled Republican members of the United States Senate, notably Barry Goldwater and Howard Baker, who went to him and said, it is over, Mr. President, it is time for you to resign.
But the walls are closing in on President Trump. I confidently suggest to you that Tuesday, August 21st, 2018, will go down as a watershed day with the guilty convictions of Manafort and the Michael Cohen plea bargain deal. We now have the most corrupt administration in modern history. This is a factual statement. I don't think it's a subjective interpretation.
HARLOW: Because you bring up Howard Baker, I mean, I have heard very little from many Republicans in Congress right now. You know, especially on the Senate side. And, you know, I get that the House is on recess, but you're still doing an interview.
I mean, who is there someone that is the Howard Baker of this moment who will say, what did you know and when did you know it, right? Do you see that turning point in your Republican colleagues right now?
HECK: I absolutely believe that there are members of the United States Senate in the Republican conference who could step up and do this. But the question really is, will they step up and do this? And that remains to be seen.
HARLOW: I appreciate your time tonight, Congressman. Thanks for being with me.
HECK: You're welcome.
HARLOW: OUTFRONT next, after a week of legal drama for the president, what is the red line for his supporters?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president better watch about the pardons, because with the pardons that he does that, it looks like it was set up by him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: And Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife in court pleading not guilty to charges that he stole campaign funds for lavish trips and shopping sprees. Is Hunter going to throw his wife under the bus?
[19:43:16] HARLOW: Breaking news tonight: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders leaving the door open, slightly open, for a possible pardon of Paul Manafort, saying President Trump has not made a decision. And that potential is not sitting well with some Trump supporters.
Our Jason Carroll is OUTFRONT.
JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Lucerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania is one of those industrial communities that has fallen on tough times over the years. To political observers, it is also known as a place that supported Barack Obama twice and then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016.
In the aftermath of the legal bombshells involving Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, here in Lucerne, voters like Anne Marie Lenahan, a registered Democrat who voted for Trump, is so encouraged by the economy, she says she can overlook allegations of Trump's infidelity.
ANNE MARIE LENAHAN, REGISTERED DEMOCRAT: Unless the money came from campaign funds, then I don't think that it's good.
CARROLL (on camera): I see. So that's where you draw that sort of line.
CARROLL: I see.
LENAHAN: But I would still vote for him again.
CARROLL (voice-over): Trump's win in this part of the state is also thanks in part to Democrats like Eileen and Richard Sorokas --
EILEEN SOROKAS, REGISTERED DEMOCRAT: This is all from president Obama's campaign.
CARROLL: -- who after voting twice for President Obama switched their vote to Trump.
Here's what the couple told CNN weeks after Trump's inauguration.
RICHARD SOROKAS, REGISTERED DEMOCRAT: You've got to get the politically correct things on here and get a businessman and get this country straight up, get the deficit down.
CARROLL: The couple stands by their decision.
R. SOROKAS: Our retirement is in the stock market and the stock market has been growing for quite a while now, so I'm sort of happy what's happening with the economy.
CARROL: The Sorokas say they see the legal crises involving Cohen and Manafort as a side show, and many others here agree.
[19:45:07] BOB SELLON, REGISTERED REPUBLICAN: The investigations were supposed to be about Russia interference in our elections. And so far, I've seen nothing concerning that.
CARROLL: As a candidate, Trump infamously joked about the dedication of his supporters.
TRUMP: Well, the polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's like incredible.
CARROLL: Loyalty only goes so far. And supporters here say it could be tested if Trump began issuing pardons.
ALDO SARTORIO, INDEPENDENT VOTER: Oh, the pardons. I don't agree with them.
CARROLL: Barbershop owner Aldo Sartorio is an independent voter who supported Trump.
(on camera): If the pardons started coming down, would that change your mind about voting for him?
SARTORIO: That's going to be my decision. That would be in the decision, sure.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure, also mine.
SARTORIO: The president better watch it about the pardons. Because with the pardons, that he does that, it looks like it was set up by him with the last couple of tweets that he had, where he sticks up for, who is it the guy out there they're talking about?
SARTORIO: Manafort. And he says he's a great guy and he's wonderful and everything else. And he's kind of sending the message that if you stick with me, I will pardon you.
CARROLL: And, Poppy, in addition to the pardons, the other line in the sand for many of the Trump supporters that we spoke to would be if the Mueller investigation found any collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russians. Again, that would be another line in the sand for many of the folks we spoke to here. But they also expressed a great deal of frustration that the Mueller investigation had not wrapped up yet -- Poppy.
HARLOW: That was a fascinating piece, Jason. Thank you so much for that.
Let's talk about it. OUTFRONT now, Rob Astorino, who is serving on the Trump 2020 advisory board. He is a new CNN contributor. And Jen Psaki, former White House communications director for former President Obama.
Nice to have you both here.
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Great to be here.
HARLOW: Good to have you.
So, Rob, to you first. I mean, the voters were clear in that piece. It was fascinating. I didn't know that they would say that and they would be so concerned about potential pardons here, but they were clear that's a red line.
Still tonight, the White House, and I quote, Sarah Sanders, quote, the president has not made a decision on pardoning Paul Manafort or anyone else. That's not a "no". In your opinion, should -- let me say, in your opinion, should the Trump White House right now close the door on a possible Manafort pardon right now?
ROB ASTORINO, FRIEND OF PRESIDENT TRUMP FOR OVER 15 YEARS: I don't think it matters right now, because the action is going to speak. And if he doesn't do it or at some point he comes out and says, no, I'm not going to do it, or doesn't ever speak about it again, it's a closed issue.
HARLOW: Why do you think it doesn't matter when all of those Trump voters just told us it does matter?
ASTORINO: By the way, I agree with them. I don't think he should. Not because he can't. He has absolute power to do that. Any president does.
HARLOW: But why even give them the rue to speculate or worry. ASTORINO: I don't think he should. I honestly think he should not
ever even consider it or issue a pardon. Because I think that sends the wrong message.
HARLOW: All right, Jen, to you, would a presidential pardon of Paul Manafort be a gift to Democrats?
PSAKI: Yes, in the sense that it would are continue to energize Democratic voters about how outrageous this violation of the rule of law is. And it might make, as we just saw in that piece, some independent voters, some people who are on the line question whether this is a guy who is draining the swamp or if he's a part of this, you know, corrupt Washington that they hate so much.
HARLOW: I mean, just on that point, Bob, to you, the swamp, right, that the president said he was going to drain, Paul Manafort was convicted by a jury of his peers of some pretty horrible things, right? Of defrauding American taxpayers. And the president still called him a good guy who he feels bad for.
Isn't that bringing the swamp right along with you.
ASTORINO: Well, I think what he meant there, and maybe I'll do a Trump translation, he worked with him, he helped him, and so he thinks he's a good guy. He should have said, comma, who did a bad thing. And you can't excuse what he did.
HARLOW: OK, I just need to know that you work on the Trump 2020 advisory committee, and therefore you have signed an NDA that includes a non non-disparagement clause. So you can't really tell me, then if -- I mean, you really don't believe the president's own words, he's a good guy, about Paul Manafort?
ASTORINO: Are you talking about Paul Manafort?
ASTORINO: No, look, I've known people, have you ever met somebody that you knew well or knew or worked with --
HARLOW: That became a convicted felon? No.
ASTORINO: Yes. Who did something wrong.
HARLOW: Who became a convicted felon? No. Nor would I say after the fact that they defrauded the American people, they're a good person.
ASTORINO: They can be a good person who did a bad thing. I think we can make that distinction. And there are bad people who do bad things.
HARLOW: Eight counts.
ASTORINO: Yes. You know how many people commit fraud who evade taxes? I'm not saying it's the right thing.
HARLOW: I do not --
ASTORINO: Poppy, let me get this straight. It is not a good thing and he should go to jail for what he did.
HARLOW: You're down -- OK, Jen Psaki, your take?
PSAKI: I mean, I think there's a really dangerous lowering of the bar here of what's acceptable.
[19:50:02] People have served in governments for the White House and for the federal government for hundreds of years and we have Trump supporters saying things like at least it's not treason.
What is happening in this country? Of course, Paul Manafort is a bad guy and Trump is, of course, trying to keep him in his corner. We all know what's happening there. I don't think it's an easy thing for him to explain even for his supporters.
ASTORINO: Well, but every time a president issues a pardon, it's somebody who did a bad thing. They're paying their debt to society, or did pay, but they did a bad thing and the president --
PSAKI: I think we can all agree there's a big difference between pardoning --
ASTORINO: -- for this reason or that reason I'm giving you a pardon.
PSAKI: There's a big difference between pardoning somebody who served time for being -- you know, dealing drugs and served 30 years and served an extended period of time and then pardoning someone who has violated and potentially colluded with Russia, we don't know yet.
So, I mean, there are huge differences here. Of course, there are pardons in the past, but the possibility of pardoning someone like Paul Manafort, this is again Trump putting out there he's above the law. That's what people don't like about it.
HARLOW: Rob, is there a pardoning -- you say, look, you know people who have done this, or a lot of people do a lot of bad things. Shouldn't there be a different standard this high in politics? Shouldn't there be a different standard if you're running a campaign for five critical months?
ASTORINO: Yes, I agree with that. Look, I'm not making any excuse and neither are those voters in Pennsylvania. Paul Manafort did what he did. No connection to the campaign. And here's the big issue, I think voters are understanding that, it has nothing to do with Russia certainly at this point that we know of, and it has nothing to do with the campaign of President Trump, everything to do with what he did 10 years ago and he's paying those prices.
HARLOW: Money that he got from the Ukrainian government that was propped --
ASTORINO: Wrong, he's wrong. Yes.
HARLOW: That was propped up by the Putin regime, the Yanukovych regime. And, by the way, he's the man who led the change of the Republican platform, having to do with Ukraine and Russia at the RNC.
ASTORINO: And he's also been involved in Republican Party politics going back to President Ford.
HARLOW: I get that, but that does not change there are ties to Russia when you look at the money. That's what I'm saying.
ASTORINO: But not to do with the collusion and what Mueller is looking into. That -- we have no facts whatsoever. What he went to jail or will go to jail for is for tax evasion and hiding money. He should go to jail for that.
HARLOW: And by the way, he faces money laundering charges in three weeks in Washington, D.C.
ASTORINO: Absolutely, yes.
HARLOW: Thank you, Rob.
ASTORINO: Thanks, Poppy.
HARLOW: It's nice to have you. Important conversation.
Jen, thank you for being here as well.
PSAKI: Thank you.
HARLOW: Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter pleading today not guilty to misusing more than a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds. Hunter defiant today as he walked into court to protesters that were shouting: lock him up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: Good morning.
REPORTER: How do you feel going into the courthouse today? How would you feel today?
HUNTER: I feel good.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: Our Sara Sidner is OUTFRONT.
SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Instead of the halls of Congress, Representative Duncan Hunter entered the halls of justice in San Diego. He and his wife making their first court appearance after being indicted by a federal grand jury. They are accused of stealing more than $250,000 of campaign funds to furnish a lavish lifestyle, including a $14,000 family trip to Italy, $11,000 at Costco, $3,000 on fast food and hundreds of dollars on clothing, some of which prosecutors say they tried to pawn off as charity for wounded veterans.
Both remained defiant, pleading not guilty to the 60 counts against them. The day before court, Representative Hunter went on the attack against the Justice Department.
HUNTER: I paid the money back. This is political, period.
SIDNER: That is also what he told the crowd at a town hall in 2017.
HUNTER: What I am a representative to you and the campaign finance stuff, I was not watching it close enough. I have fixed it now. I have fixed it now. It's all straightened out.
SIDNER: A grand jury didn't see it that way. Prosecutors said even his campaign staffers kept warning the couple they were violating the law.
The assistant U.S. attorney said the couple wasn't a flight risk due in part to their dire financial condition. Prosecutors noting that Hunter racked up $37,000 in overdraft fees on his personal accounts, Hunter as much as admitting his family is going through financial troubles.
HUNTER: There's nothing illegal about being poor. I don't think there's anything illegal about not having money in your bank account.
SIDNER: But there is something illegal about using campaign funds to shore up personal finances. And as a congressman, he's paid $174,000 out of tax coffers. Few would call that poor.
Outside the court, Democratic voters make clear they are sickened at the charges and they are gunning for his seat.
[19:55:03] His Democratic opponent, businessman Ammar Campa-Najjar says he commends Hunter as a former marine who served his country abroad. But he says Hunter appears to have served himself during his time in Washington.
AMMAR CAMPA-NAJJAR (D), CANDIDATE, CA 50TH DISTRICT: I think Washington chewed him up and spat him out and engulfed him in the corruption that has plagued Washington too long. I think the voters come November are going to change that and hope to have real representation for the first time in a long time.
SIDNER: Something else interesting happened both inside and outside court. We noticed that Mr. Hunter and his wife entered at different times in different ways and they did not sit together while in court. And when Representative Hunter was asked about those thousands of overdrafts to his account, he seemed to put that on his wife saying while he was overseas serving in the Marines, that he gave her power of attorney over those accounts and he was simply unsure about those details -- Poppy.
HARLOW: Wow, fascinating development. Thank you very much, Sara.
OUTFRONT next, Jeanne Moos on Trump's late night all caps Twitter rant.
HARLOW: Tonight, President Trump, Twitter addict and night owl.
Here's Jeanne Moos.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The White House went dark, except a few lights were still on after 1:00 a.m. like a Motel 6.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll leave the light on for you.
MOOS: It's 1:10 a.m., do you know where your president is?
He's tweeting, with the caps lock key on: no collusion, rigged witch hunt, something President Trump says all the time.
TRUMP: It's a witch hunt.
MOOS: At a recent rally, he coughed up five no collusions in 10 seconds.
TRUMP: Where is the collusion? You know, they're still looking for collusion. They're still looking for collusion. Find some collusion. We want to find the collusion.
MOOS: But when critics found no collusion at 1:10 a.m. in a tweet, they colluded to mock the commander in tweets. It's 1:10 a.m. and our hemmed-in president is talking to the walls via in an all caps scream, wrote journalist Howard Fineman.
Tweeted someone else, nothing says innocent like a random 1:00 all caps tweet screaming the same nonsense you spout everyday. Another commenter saw shades of Nixon. This is the equivalent of Nixon walking through the White House, talking to the portraits.
But what better time to hunt witches than after midnight?
TRUMP: No collusion.
The rigged witch hunt.
MOOS: The president is making witches great again. The last time an after midnight tweet got this much attention, the theory was the president dozed with his fingers on the keyboard.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is a covfefe?
MOOS: That time, he might have had trouble staying awake, but this time, well, Mr. President, if you're having trouble sleeping ask your doctor if covfefe is right for you.
Jeanne Moos, CNN --
TRUMP: All the phony witch hunt. A total witch hunt. This is a witch hunt like nobody has ever seen before.
MOOS: -- New York.
TRUMP: What you should do is look at the other side.
HARLOW: Before we let you go tonight, we want to welcome the newest member of the OUTFRONT family. Take a look. That beauty is Owen Thomas, born to our own Erin Burnett On Monday, August 20th. He is getting to know his big brother, Nile and sister, Colby. The entire family is doing great except for maybe a little sleep deprivation.
Erin, we are so happy for you. Hugs and kiss for you. Sleep comes, you know, eventually. You've been through this before. I wish you all the best and enjoy every minute of this special time. We will see you back in this chair very soon.
Thanks so much for being with me tonight.
"AC360" starts now.