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Trump & White House Grapple with Michael Cohen's Betrayal. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 06:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Later on I knew. Later on. It didn't come out of the campaign. They came to me.

[05:59:26] MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: We've heard every story known to mankind from Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Failing to report a lawful contribution is the political equivalent of jaywalking.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The Manafort case doesn't have anything to do with the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If he starts saying that, "If you're associated with me and you're a criminal, you're OK," that is gangsterism.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Thursday, August 23, 6 a.m. here in New York.

What were you doing at 1 a.m. this morning?


BERMAN: Because you have a guilt-free conscious. I'll submit, mostly.

CAMEROTA: Really? Or is it -- well, how much time do you have?


CAMEROTA: Or it was that I don't burn the midnight oil, but I know who you're referring to who does.

BERMAN: Exactly. This morning, we now know how the president is taking the historic accusation that he directed his lawyer to break the law to win the election. So how is he taking it? In a phrase, not well.

This morning, we also know how the president and his advisers will battle that accusation, so how will they? In a phrase, not truthfully.

Just after 1 a.m. in the White House, the lights were on, and the president's fingers, they were typing, criticizing the investigation into the Russian attack on the U.S. election, as one does after 1 a.m., the day after your one-time campaign chair was convicted of bank fraud and your longtime lawyer pleaded guilty to all kinds of charges, including illegal payments of hush money to women before the election at your direction, you in this scenario being Donald Trump.

This is the cover of "TIME" magazine, the president submerged in a political deluge. He's also drowning in inconsistencies and provably false statements. Remember, Michael Cohen says the president directed him to make the hush money payments, but this is what the president said about it last night.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you know about the payments?

TRUMP: Later on I knew, later on. But they didn't come out of campaign. In fact, my first question when I heard about it was, "Did they come out of the campaign?" Because that could be a little dicey. And they didn't come out of the campaign. And that's fake. But they weren't -- that's not a -- it's not even a campaign violation.


CAMEROTA: Well, we'll talk about what the real law is. The president says he only knew of the presidents, as you heard there, later on, but that contradicts his own words.

Just last month, Michael Cohen's attorney released this audiotape exclusively to CNN. This was a conversation between Michael Cohen and Donald Trump, discussing paying off Karen McDougal. This was in September of 2016, two months before the election.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER LAWYER FOR DONALD TRUMP: So I'm all over that. And I spoke to Allen about it. When it comes times for the financing, which will be --

TRUMP: Wait a sec, what financing?

COHEN: We'll have to pay --

TRUMP: Pay with cash?

COHEN: No, no, no. No, no, no.


COHEN: Hey, Don, how are you?

(END VIDEO CLIP) CAMEROTA: There's also what the president told reporters, of course, on Air Force One back in April. But what Cohen said in court under oath was different. That candidate Trump directed him to pay off two women for their silence, quote, "for the principal purpose of influencing the election." Failing to report that as a campaign contribution violates campaign finance law.

We're also learning more about the president's mindset during this troubled phase of his presidency. "The New York Times" reports that he was, quote, "subdued and isolated" after Cohen's betrayal.

BERMAN: Joining us now is "New York Times" White House correspondent, CNN political analyst, Michael Shear, one of the reporters who contributed to this "New York Times" story which really goes into the president's mood and how he's reacting and how his advisers think about it.

There's this remarkable quote in this article, again, Michael, that you contributed to and Maggie Haberman, Katie Rogers, that says, the president was telling aides, "We started with collusion. How did we end up here?"

MICHAEL SHEAR, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, no, that's exactly right. You know, I don't think there's anybody that has paid any attention to this president that doesn't think that, at some point, he's really going to lash out about this and show the side of him that we see often attacking, deflecting, and all of the sort of chaos that we've seen.

But for the moment, for the immediate moment, there was really a sense, at the White House, both among the president and his aides, of really that they had kind of absorbed this blow and they didn't know what to do about it. They didn't quite know how to react. You didn't see the same kind of angry deflection. What, instead, you saw was this sense of kind of utter frustration that they didn't quite know how to -- how to respond to this.

BERMAN: And there seems to be this concern among those close to him and those who observe him about what could come next. As you just noted and you say in the article, "People who have known Mr. Trump for years pointed out that he's never -- that have never been as cornered or as isolated as he is right now, and that he's at his most dangerous when he feels backed against a wall. The dynamic has led President Trump to publicly praise and privately muse about pardoning Paul Manafort."

Leave the Manafort side out of this for a second here, but the idea that they don't know what he'll do next, is that palpable inside the White House?

SHEAR: It is. I mean, it's partly palpable, because I think the advisers around him don't quite know what to do. The -- you know, there's always a more difficult response when you're responding to a strictly legal situation; and what happened the other day really did, you know, play out in strict legal terms. These are -- these are documents. These are not just political accusations. It's a little bit easier for a White House to respond when something is purely a political battle.

[06:05:04] But I -- you know, but look, what this president does very well and what has served him well is deflection to other topics. And, you know, whether it's going to be, you know, illegal immigration, whether it's going to be trade, you know, there is going to be a moment here, I would suspect in the next couple of days, where they try to get away from this by pushing the conversation elsewhere and giving us a shiny object that we all chase after again.

BERMAN: In the meantime, he's lashing out against Michael Cohen. And the other thing he's doing, there's this debate, will he or won't he pardon Paul Manafort? There should be no debate that he's thinking about it, that he is weighing pardoning Paul Manafort, because he has told us so out loud in interviews and on Twitter. He's made crystal clear he thinks Manafort was treated poorly, and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is acknowledging that he discussed the possibility of pardoning Manafort with -- with the president.

SHEAR: Right. He's also -- Mr. Giuliani is also saying that it's -- that he doesn't think it will happen. We reported at "The Times" some months ago that -- that lawyers -- that the president's lawyers had talked to the lawyers for Mr. Manafort about the possibility of a pardon.

You know, I think, I think they recognize, at least the people around the president recognize that that would be a line that perhaps even staunch Republican supporters of the president would, you know, that if he crossed that line, that would cause him a whole lot of political problems. But as we know, this is a president that doesn't often look at sort of traditional political analysis and say, "OK, well, that's the decision I'll make." So, you know, I think we all have to brace for the possibility that something like that could happen.

BERMAN: Yes, the line between "they" and "he" is one of the biggest lines right now in the American political system.

Lastly, the president on FOX News last night, and we'll play some of this over the course of the three hours we're with you this morning, the president's really going after Michael Cohen, trying to diminish the type of relationship that he had with him over the years.

And Michael, I'm sure you've covered this president for a long time before this. In 2012, there was never a time when I was following Donald Trump, as he was considering whether to run for president, when Michael Cohen wasn't there. He is someone who has been around the president and very close to him for a long time, despite what the president now says.

SHEAR: Yes, you know, I wonder whether, when we looked at Sarah Sanders' briefing yesterday and she was quite subdued, she didn't -- you know, she wasn't her normal, feisty, you know, giving all sorts of different answers. She just sort of, in a mono- kind of way, repeated the same phrases over and over again.

And I -- and I do wonder whether that's because it's impossible to distance the president and this White House from Michael Cohen. You can do that, maybe, with some of the other characters in this drama, you know, who have been kind of in and out of the president's orbit, maybe came in for just a few months like Paul Manafort did, but there's no way that you can distance the president from Michael Cohen. And so that makes the task of trying to figure out how to -- how to spin this all that much more difficult. And that has caused them to sort of retreat into themselves, at least for the moment.

BERMAN: Michael Shear, great to have you with us this morning. Next time, we'll go into who that portrait is hanging over your mantle behind you, because I'm fascinated by that. Michael, thanks so much.

CAMEROTA: You look a lot at the backdrop of when we're doing an interview.

BERMAN: I didn't know he was French royalty. Apparently, Michael Shear is like the dauphin. He's like the next king of France, because he's got some portrait over his fireplace.

CAMEROTA: I knew that.

All right. Meanwhile, let's bring in CNN senior political analyst, John Avlon on this.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I was wondering the exact same thing.

CAMEROTA: And two CNN legal analysts, Shan Wu, a former lawyer for Rick Gates and a former federal prosecutor; and Carrie Cordero, former counsel to the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security. Great to have all of you and your minds with us today, because we're going to need them.

So, Shan, the president and his supporters and his surrogates are using a very interesting tactic. They're saying there was no crime. There's no crime. This is not illegal, which is very interesting, for Michael Cohen to possibly be going to prison for a non-crime, OK?

And so what I think they're saying is that there is no campaign finance law, or people are not usually prosecuted for it, or if there is a campaign finance law, the money had to come from a campaign. Can you explain to us what the law is, as related to the president, that Michael Cohen broke?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Actually, Alisyn, you did a very good job making arguments in the alternative there --

CAMEROTA: Thank you.

WU: -- much clearer than Giuliani has.

So the problem legally for the president is that Cohen in court admitted to and pled guilty to a textbook case of seeking to influence the election. And he used that word specifically. And that's what the problem is.

It is a potential deflection to try to get everyone to pay attention to the source of the funds. That could be an issue, but that's not the open and shut case --

[06:10:07] CAMEROTA: So they don't have to come from a campaign. To be clear, they don't have to come directly from Trump for President. They can come from, say, the Trump Organization and still be the same crime?

WU: Right. You could have a separate problem with using campaign funds for an improper purpose. And that's still maybe operative here.

But specifically, we've been hearing about the influence and, in some ways, the influence would have been a harder case to prove, because influence requires the intent to do that. But Cohen seems very crystal clear on that point.

And then, I guess the last issue that the president's trying to raise is, it has nothing to do with the campaign at all -- maybe he hasn't articulated this well -- but that it is a personal issue he was trying to take care of. And that may well be his motivation, but there his problem is going to be the timing that they chose to do that in.

And in fact, I think even earlier in that tape we've all heard, he talks about being aware of a timing issue for a different issue -- I think it was a divorce document -- but he seems very aware of the timing of the election.

BERMAN: He also is very aware of the money in that taped conversation that we heard between Michael Cohen and the president, the part we didn't play. He says, "So what do you have to pay for this, $150,000?"

The president in September discussing how much to pay for silencing a woman before the election. And then last night on FOX News, he says he didn't know about it until later on. Those two things are impossible, impossible to square.

And Carrie, as you go into this, the case here, and Aly, I think you correctly laid it out, perfectly laid it out in fact, what the president and his allies are trying to say here. They're ignoring the evidence that the federal government, that the Justice Department says it has. It's not just Michael Cohen.

This federal prosecutor stood up in court and said they have records obtained in the searches of Michael Cohen's offices. They say they have text messages, messages sent over encrypted apps, phone records, records produced via subpoena. The witness testimony, including witnesses involved in the transactions in questions who communicated with the defendant. And this morning, I have my legal documents.

CAMEROTA: I can see that. You're really making a case. "The Wall Street Journal" reports that "Adding to the pressure, David Pecker, the chairman of American Media Inc., which publishes 'The National Enquirer,' provided prosecutors with details about payments Cohen arranged with the women who alleged sexual encounters with President Trump, including" -- and here's the alarm bell -- "Mr. Trump's knowledge of the deals."

Carrie, that seems to be a fair amount of evidence there.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right, so the plea agreement that was reached with Michael Cohen, the prosecutors would not have accepted his plea if they hadn't verified the information that was in it. So they didn't -- the government did not just take Michael Cohen's word that he had committed this act, committed this violation, and that he had done so in coordination and at the direction of, quote, "individual one," who we know is now the president, then candidate, Donald Trump. And that's in the documents, and that was in the statement that Michael Cohen made in court.

So they have, as you just described, other evidence that would have corroborated the information that Michael Cohen gave them, which meant -- means that the president's team, to the extent that they try to simply discredit Michael Cohen, isn't really going to be persuasive, because there are text messages or other types of evidence that were gathered, and perhaps the testimony that they have obtained or interviews they've obtained of other witnesses who may be knowledgeable about what transpired.

CAMEROTA: This is the bombshell that you just read, John. I mean, John, this -- David Pecker, who it says here, he provided prosecutors with details about the payments that Mr. Cohen arranged with the women who alleged sexual encounters with President Trump, including Mr. Trump's knowledge of the deals.

I don't think Mr. Trump got his $150,000 worth out of this source. That was to be quiet, David Pecker! What are you doing telling prosecutors about this?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is the problem when prosecutors get involved. All your subterranean plans tend to come out.

And this is where the Trump team is running into the wall of reality. To date, the president's core strategy of deny, deflect, distract, divide, has worked very well, at least with his base. But it doesn't work when you come up against the legal system. And so they've got to confront uncomfortable facts.

So you see a demoralized press secretary. So you see a president trying to pretend that campaign finance laws don't apply. And you see testimony being given by friends and allies that don't stick with the given narrative, because they're being forced to tell the truth under oath. These are real problems that he can't spin his way out of.

BERMAN: It's a Pecker problem.

AVLON: It's a Pecker problem, if you will.

CAMEROTA: It is a big Pecker problem.

BERMAN: Can I play what you the president said last night about Michael Cohen? Again, Michael Cohen is someone who has been very close to the president for a long time. And again, if you've covered Donald Trump for a while, he was always there. AVLON: Yes.

BERMAN: But this is what the president said about Michael Cohen last night.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Cohen, tell me about your relationship with him.

[06:15:02] 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 -- what turned out, he wasn't a very good lawyer, frankly. But he was somebody that was probably with me for about ten years, and I would see him sometimes.


BERMAN: Just a guy, John. Just a guy.

AVLON: Barely knew the guy. Barely knew the guy. And what's fascinating is, of course, you've got footage from Air Force One, which is "refer to my lawyer, my attorney, Michael." And not that long ago, a few months ago, the administration didn't even know Paul Manafort, right? I mean, from the White House podium, barely worked for him for a hot second; no real involvement in our campaign.

BERMAN: Here's the footage of Michael Cohen not near Donald Trump.

AVLON: Yes, exactly. One of many footage, you know, dozens, hundreds of tapes that exist where he's not near Donald Trump.

But now he's throwing his consigliere under the bus, which strains credulity. And he's all of a sudden re-embracing Paul Manafort. And to me one of the most chilling things that came out yesterday is the president of the United States praising a convicted felon who was chairman of his campaign for not breaking by giving information to prosecutors.

CAMEROTA: Yes. That language --

AVLON: That language.

CAMEROTA: -- that language is really interesting. For "not breaking."

AVLON: "Not breaking."

CAMEROTA: It wasn't for telling the truth. It was for "not breaking."

AVLON: That is language out of a Scorsese film, not the Oval Office.

BERMAN: Yes. And you're not talking about Scorsese films like -- you know --

AVLON: "The King of Comedy."

BERMAN: Not that one. You're talking about the mob movies.

All right. The Paul Manafort reference there provides us a perfect segue to our next segment, which is going to be, is the president about to pardon this convicted felon? That's next.


[06:20:35] CAMEROTA: In a new interview, President Trump slams his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, once again. Listen.


TRUMP: I put in 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.


CAMEROTA: Well, we're back with Carrie Cordero, Shan Wu, and John Avlon. What does that mean, Shan? "Never took control of the Justice Department"?

WU: It's really amazing hearing him saying that. I think he means that Sessions has done things that he doesn't like, most notably recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

And frankly, when you hear him talk like that, one is surprised that he hasn't already fired Sessions. I mean, there's some sort of countervailing measure going on where he's not doing that, but it's really stunning to hear a president say that about his attorney general, without firing him.

BERMAN: Yes, it's really interesting. I mean, clearly, he -- it's in reference also to what just happened here in New York with Michael Cohen. And the president actually tweeted about this and mentioned this. You know, he had a different attorney general -- Obama had a different attorney general, so campaign finance laws were handled differently.

This was the Justice Department of the Southern District that has brought these charges against Michael Cohen, Carrie, which is a remarkable thing. It is a remarkable thing to see the system at work here.

CORDERO: Sure. Well, the president has always had a distorted view of the way that the Justice Department is supposed to work, in his view. I think he came into office thinking that the Justice Department was going to be his own arm of enforcement and an agency that would be able to carry out political retribution. That's the type of language that he used along the campaign, where he wanted to say, people will be prosecuted. Someone will be locked up. This is the vision that he has.

And unfortunately, he hasn't amended or updated or learned or gained more respect for how the independent justice system is supposed to work since he's been in office.

CAMEROTA: John, Shan just said, it's amazing that the president hasn't fired Jeff Sessions when he continually publicly denigrates him. Well, the public just commented on that.


CAMEROTA: Here's this moment.


TRUMP: 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?" And by the way, he was on the campaign. You know, the only reason I gave him the job, because I felt loyalty. He was an original supporter. He was on the campaign. He knows there was no collusion.


CAMEROTA: Not qualifications. "The only reason I gave him the job was loyalty." That's what jumped out at me. What jumps out at you?

AVLON: A lot of things. First of all, Jeff Sessions has a hostile work environment. I mean, the president hates his attorney general. He has denigrated him, called him weak, MIA. This is doubling down on that language.

He feels constraint from firing him, because senators have said, "Look, we're going to have to confirm his replacement, and you know, that's not going to be an easy process for you."

The other thing, by calling out the loyalty, he's highlighting another problem, which is the problem is for Jeff Sessions is that he was on the campaign. And when he got pressed for not disclosing meetings with Russians, that's when he had to recuse himself, because that's the process.

CAMEROTA: The president omits that in the chronology.


CAMEROTA: He always forgets that.

AVLON: Doesn't fit the narrative. CAMEROTA: He acts as though this was always sort of a predestined idea of Jeff Sessions, that he was going to recuse himself.


CAMEROTA: There was a chronology where steps happened where he realized he couldn't stay overseeing the Russia investigation.

AVLON: Yes. It's like this deep-state plot to have, you know, Jeff Sessions embedded with the campaign and Paul Manafort. I mean, this is a really long, long game they've been playing here, people.

But it's absolutely ludicrous. He also has this idea that Eric Holder as attorney general to Barack Obama was his personal enforcer.


AVLON: Not understanding, for example, how the FEC works and other things germane to --

BERMAN: To this point, I have not heard the president of the United States express any concern that Paul Manafort broke the law, which he was convicted of; that Michael Cohen broke the law, which he pleaded guilty to.

CAMEROTA: No, what the president says is, "So do a lot of other campaigns." That's what he says.

BERMAN: But that's not his concern. His concern is that the attorney general of the United States did not keep them from being prosecuted for breaking the law. That's astounding.

And that gets to the next point here. Let's talk about this issue of the pardon, Shan, for a moment. The president of the United States -- Josh Gerstein writes for "Politico," one of my reportorial mentors, if you will; says, "It's not a matter of if the president is going to pardon Paul Manafort. It's an issue of when."

Do you feel like it's -- that's the signal being sent by the president?

[06:25:09] WU: I absolutely agree with that. I think it could happen at any moment. The president has shown. He does not need any paper. He does not need any decision-making process for it. It could happen at 1 a.m. in the morning with a tweet. So I think that's very likely to happen.

And something that Carrie said about his not understanding the system, I was thinking about this yesterday. You know, there's so many comparisons to President Nixon. And the one thing is, Nixon was a lawyer, a pretty sharp lawyer, and understood the justice system and had a certain reverence for it, and that's probably why he stepped down. The president really, at times, just does not seem to get it, at all.

CAMEROTA: Carrie, if the president pardons Paul Manafort, does that then shut down the second phase of this, the next trial that is to come?

CORDERO: Yes, well, it depends on the timing. So he could pardon him today and then, right, then that would be it. Then he would not have to go through that. If the president pardoned him for past and anything else that he might be involved with. Or he could wait to see if the D.C. trial goes through.

But I have to say, anyone who's skeptical about whether or not a pardon is seriously on the table, I would just say that, when I -- when I look back at the president's actions, I tend to take him at his word. When Donald Trump says that he's going to institute a Muslim ban, I believed him. When he said that he's going to revoke the security clearances of John Brennan and other former national security officials, I believe him.

And so when he says language like Paul Manafort is a good man and what's happened is really sad and that type of language that he's used for other people who he has actually previously used his pardon authority for, I think people should be taking it very seriously.

And so the question is, would he do it before the D.C. trial or will he wait until some later time? It could be after the trial. It could even be much later down the road.

But his -- the things that he's saying publicly should be taken seriously.

And one other point on Jeff Sessions, just very briefly. Jeff Sessions followed the ethics rules of the Justice Department. And so there's lots of things, whether or not people like Jeff Sessions or they disagree with many of the policies that he's implemented at the Justice Department, I would argue that the most important decision that he made as attorney general was to follow the ethics advice of the Justice Department lawyers and recuse himself for that investigation.

And every single time that the president talks about his recusal publicly is another peg in the step of going towards an obstruction investigation. And if we know that the Mueller case, the Mueller investigation is looking at obstruction, every time the president publicly chastises the attorney general and places pressure on him, whether it's privately or publicly, it's another step in that obstruction case.

BERMAN: Really quickly, really quickly, last night we did hear from one of the jurors on the Paul Manafort case. Let's listen very quickly.


PAULA DUNCAN, JUSTICE ON MANAFORT TRIAL: We all tried to convince her to look at the paper trail. We laid it out in front of her again and again, and she still said that she had a reasonable doubt. And that's the way the jury worked. We didn't want it to be hung, so we tried for an extended period of time to convince her, but in the end, she held out, and that's why we have ten counts that did not get a verdict.


BERMAN: This is one juror, Shan, saying that there was one holdout on the ten counts that were hung there. But we also learned some other fascinating things from this juror. What did you take from her comments?

WU: That makes a lot of sense. And when we saw that first note, that's what many of us thought was going on, was they needed a reinstruction on reasonable doubt to convince somebody.

And that -- it really shows the jury tried very hard to work, because they didn't keep sending notes out saying, "We just can't get along." They really tried to work it through.

And some of those other comments about the credibility of Gates, I thought, were very eye-opening, as well.

AVLON: Yes. And stunning, too, that that woman said she's a Trump supporter. She said, she didn't want Manafort to be guilty, but the preponderance of evidence forced her.

CAMEROTA: That's how it's supposed to work.


CAMEROTA: That's how it's supposed to work. I wonder if, during these hardened times, when people are in their corners, if it's getting harder to find consensus on a jury.

But we have more new developments. So the president has just spoken about Michael Cohen and what the president thinks should be the illegal part of all this.


TRUMP: It's called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal. You get ten years in jail, but if you say bad things about somebody, in other words, make up stories, if you don't know, make up stories. They just make up lies.

Alan Dershowitz said compose, right? They make up lies -- I've seen it many times. They make up things, and now they go from ten years to they're a national hero. They have a statue erected in their honor. It's not -- it's not a fair thing. But that's why he did it. He made a very good deal.


CAMEROTA: John, you led out an audible guffaw, why?

AVLON: Wow. The president of the United States just freelancing on what his code of law would be in the United States, where flipping, or ratting out, as mobsters might say, somebody, that would be the real crime, not actually telling the truth --