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National Enquirer Boss Granted Immunity in Cohen Case; Sessions Hits Back at Trump; Interview with Rep. Ryan Costello. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

As pressure mounts, President Trump giving an extraordinary interview in which he says flipping, meaning cooperating with law enforcement, ought to be illegal and argues against his own impeachment saying, quote, everybody would be poor.

Also, after dozens of very public insults against his own attorney general, the president with his most direct attack yet. Why President Trump says he should have never hired Jeff Sessions.

And candid revelations from one of the jurors who decided Paul Manafort's fate. Why she says just one woman was the holdout on those t10 undecided counts.

All that coming up.

But let's start with the breaking news. The Wall Street Journal is now reporting that David Pecker, a long-time friend of President Trump, was given immunity by prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case. Remember, Cohen just implicated the president of the United States in campaign finance violations. David Pecker is the chairman of American Media Incorporated, that's the company that publishes the National Enquirer.

The journal says -- the Wall Street Journal says Pecker gave prosecutors details on the payments made by Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Payments Michael Cohen says were directed and coordinated by the then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Today the president talked about Cohen's deal. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal. You get 10 years in jail, but if you say bad things about somebody, in other words make up stories if you don't know, they just make up lies.

Alan Dershowitz stayed composed, right? They make up lies. I've seen it many times. They make up things and now they go from 10 years to a national hero.

They have a statue erected in their honor. It's not a fair thing. But -- that's why he did it. He made a very good deal.


BLITZER: All right. Let's immediately go to our White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Kaitlan, this is a big deal that a long-time friend and associate of the president of the United States, David Pecker of American Media, cooperating with federal prosecutors in exchange for immunity. What are you hearing of these latest attacks and the revelations about David Pecker's role in helping Michael Cohen facilitate these hush money payments?

KAITLAN COLLINS: Yes, Wolf, you're right. This is a big deal, and it's not good news for President Trump.

Now the Wall Street Journal reporting that David Pecker and an editor at the National Enquirer have been granted immunity in this case. Now, but Wolf, before, we had previously reported that David Pecker had been subpoenaed in all this. And we knew that he told prosecutors in the southern district of New York, which is investigating Michael Cohen and these hush payments made to these women alleging that they had affairs with the president, that he told them that President Trump was aware of those payments at the time.

Now that would contradict what the White House and what President Trump have tried to say for several months now, including President Trump on camera yesterday saying he didn't know about the payments until later on, even though there's an audio recording of him and Michael Cohen discussing how to make one of the payments.

Now this is big news because David Pecker is a long-time ally of the president. That is why he had a role in helping to cover up these affairs with these women. His alleged affairs that these women said that they had with President Trump. And they were trying to quiet them so that they would not hurt the president's chances in the election.

Now, what this means, they're getting immunity here, Wolf, is David Pecker, a long-time ally of President Trump must have valuable testimony, prosecutors believe, and that is why they're granting him immunity in something like this.

Clearly a very big deal, likely something that is not going to please the president here, Wolf, after you just heard him say that he believes that flipping, which in order -- you know, revealing information you have so you could have a lesser sentence about someone, should be illegal. That is what the president said during an interview yesterday.

And now with this news, it certainly is not going to be welcome here in the West Wing. BLITZER: It's another source of grave, grave concern, I am sure, for the president of the United States. David Pecker granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation with the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, as well as the special counsel presumably, Robert Mueller as well.

Kaitlan, stand by. I know that you're going to be getting more reaction.

I want to get some analysis. I want to bring in Richard Ben-Veniste, CNN legal analyst, former Watergate special prosecutor. Margaret Talev, CNN political analyst, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News. And CNN Legal Analyst Laura Coates.

Let me read -- first of all, Laura, let me read to you what Michael Cohen said before the federal judge in New York when he pleaded guilty to all those charges, specifically what he said about American Media and David Pecker, and the role of the president of the United States in facilitating that $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal, the former Playboy playmate.

[13:05:11] This is what Michael Cohen said. I'll read it very carefully.

"As to count number seven, on or about the summer of 2016, in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office, I and the CEO of a media company at the request of the candidate worked together to keep an individual with information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign from publicly disclosing this information. After a number of discussions, we eventually accomplished the goal by the media company entering into a contract with the individual under which she received compensation of $150,000. I participated in this conduct which on my part took place in Manhattan for the principal purpose of influencing the election."

And now we've learned since that statement from Michael Cohen that David Pecker received immunity in exchange for his cooperation.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: This is truly stunning. And you can -- reading from that, you can make it very obvious that David Pecker probably made a beeline, right to the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York to say, excuse me, I know I've been implicated as well, (INAUDIBLE) about it.

And you also remember, you probably prepared for this long before. When the audiotape recording came out from Lanny Davis on our own airwaves talking about a conversation recorded secretly by Michael Cohen and the president of the United States, then the candidate, he talked about David Pecker and resolving all of the issues he emphasized about information that might come out before the campaign. I'm sure at that point he was on notice he would be implicated at some point in the future. You see it happening in black and white in front of a court of law.

And now immunity means he'll be able to testify in a court of law, to the grand jury, and before Congress without penalty. BLITZER: Richard Ben-Veniste, when the judge asked Michael Cohen this question, Mr. Cohen, when you took all of these acts that you've described, did you know what you were doing was wrong and illegal? Michael Cohen responded, yes, your honor. Go ahead --

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, of course. He's pleading guilty to a felony. And in that allocution, he must testify truthfully before the judge that takes the plea. The judge must be satisfied that there's a basis for an individual pleading guilty to a felony before him. And so this information about a friend of the president, long-time friend who may be involved in other such catch and kill operations on behalf of the president, now apparently corroborates under oath what Michael Cohen has said.

And so this is a very important development. There's a furious attempt to discredit Michael Cohen on every possible area that he may be cooperating. Very similar to what the Nixon White House did with John Dean. And I find it interesting that Michael Cohen's middle name is Dean. I learned something yesterday.

BLITZER: Very interesting indeed.

You know, Margaret, this is something that clearly has to worry the president because they could go after Michael Cohen and say, you know, he's a liar, he's a cheater, he makes stuff up, he was only saying what he was saying about the president in order to get a reduced sentence, a reduced fine. But if you have backup, not only from all the electronic information they collected at his home, his office, his hotel room, his safe deposit box, or whatever, but if they have backup from the head of the American Media, the National Enquirer's parent publication, and a long-time friend and associate of the president, that's a huge deal.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. And I think, you know, what this week has done is move this firmly into the realm of the legal. It has been for months now this balance between what's happening on the legal front, what's happening on the political front. The problem for the president is now squarely in the legal realm, which is what matters. And that could have political implications.

You're still seeing Republicans in Congress trying to figure out, you know, what to do, how to respond, and whether to do any of it publicly. But this absolutely changes the dynamics of what we're talking about because there are now -- so far it doesn't matter what the president has said publicly. But what has always mattered more is what people would say under oath.

And remember, the context of this, we were talking -- we have been talking all this time about whether the president would sit for questions with Mr. Mueller's team. And I think, you know, in light of what Mr. Cohen did and now this report about David Pecker, we understand how perilous that would actually be.

BLITZER: Yes, the notion. And you mentioned it, Richard, catch and kill. You catch someone saying something bad about Donald Trump, you offer money, you kill the story, you never publish it. That's what the nature of catch and kill.

Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news.

[13:10:00] Laura Jarrett over at the Justice Department. She's working on another story for us. What are you learning, Laura?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, a rare statement from the attorney general, Jeff Sessions today, issuing a brush back to the president after that fiery interview he gave on Fox. And I want to read the full statement to you, Wolf because this is truly extraordinary. We rarely hear from Sessions, especially pushing back on the president.

He says in part here, "I took control of the Justice Department the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the president's agenda, one that protects the safety and security and rights of the American people, reduces crime and enforces our immigration laws, promotes economic growth, and advances liberty."

He goes on, Wolf, to say, "While I am attorney general, the actions of the Justice Department 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 and more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States."

And finally, he says, "I am proud to serve with them, I'm proud of the work we have done in successfully advancing the rule of law" rather.

So clearly a clear push back to the president here. It's measured, but this is very rare, Wolf. He never does this. The last time that he issued this type of statement was back in February when the president questioned his integrity again, surrounding the FISA situation with Carter Page. But otherwise, he rarely does this, Wolf.

We expect him at the White House later today for an entirely different subject on criminal justice reform.


BLITZER: It really is significant because the president of the United States in this most recent interview with Fox News, he really went after Sessions.

I'm going to play the clip. I don't know if we have it cued up yet. But I'm going to play the clip of what the president said about Jeff Sessions, the man he named to be the attorney general of the United States, a man who has served as the top law enforcement officer in the United States. And the president once again humiliated him publicly, rebuked him publicly, said the only reason he has this job is because he was loyal to him during the presidential campaign. If we have that clip, let me play it right now.


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


BLITZER: This isn't the first time, but it seems to be, Laura, the most direct moment that the president has so publicly gone after the man he named to be the attorney general.

JARRETT: It's true, Wolf. And it's interesting. I think some of us have become almost numb to the daily tweets. You know, just recently he said that the attorney general was missing in action.

And he sort of does these daily tweet storms on the attorney general on a variety of other officials, including Bruce Ohr, a career official here at the Justice Department. He's talked about withdrawing that man's security clearance.

And so the president has lashed out frequently on Twitter, but it's another thing to go on Fox, to make those types of statements about your own attorney general. And clearly today, Jeff Sessions had enough.

Now, we'll see what the reaction is. We'll see what the interaction is between the two of them at the White House later today if we can catch that on camera. But it's also interesting, you know, leaders on Capitol Hill today were questioned at length about whether the president could fire Jeff Sessions before the midterms. And they were unanimous in saying that would be a political disaster.

BLITZER: Yes, they were. All of the Republicans that we caught up with, the senators and the members of the House of Representatives, they were very supportive of Jeff Sessions.

All right, we're going to take a quick break. We've got lots of breaking news that we're following right now. Much more right after this.


[13:18:16] BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news. The attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, hitting back at the president of the United States saying the Department of Justice won't be improperly influenced. He says the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.

This after the president in an interview that aired on Fox News earlier this morning went after the attorney general publicly rebuking him, humiliating him, basically saying the only reason he got his job as the top law enforcement officer of the United States was because he was loyal to Donald Trump during the presidential campaign.

Let's get reaction right now from Republican Congressman Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

So give me your reaction to this exchange. A pretty extraordinary exchange. I don't think I've ever heard a president publicly rebuke an attorney general along these lines. And now the Attorney General Jeff sessions saying to the president, you know what, I'm not going anywhere, we got a job to do.

REP. RYAN COSTELLO (R), PENNSYLVANIA: I agree. I haven't heard it either. I would agree with your reporter who coined it rare and measured. I think it's more than anything else Jeff Sessions who's probably had enough.

If you listen to conservative radio or certain news channel, I mean, every single day Jeff Sessions is just getting lit up. I think what the president did in sort of describing what he wants his attorney general to do also makes it a little bit more difficult for whomever the next attorney general is who has to go through Senate confirmation.

Loyalty is not the test for an attorney general. Fidelity to the law, independence, and following the law and protecting individual rights and upholding the constitution is the standard.

[13:20:02] So the president's description of something other than that, I think is a little bit troubling.

And then my final point there is, the laws of political gravity don't always apply to a president in real time. And this president has actually demonstrated that sometimes they don't apply at all.

We're in a situation now where I think you're going to speak about the AMI issue, where the coloration of this is looking a little bit different now.

BLITZER: It certainly is. But, you know, why doesn't -- if the president so much dislikes, distrusts, can't stand Jeff Sessions, why doesn't he just fire him?

COSTELLO: Well, it would reflect poorly upon him, number one. And while it would be problematic, I think for Republicans to have to answer those questions, it would also enable Republicans the ability to assert some independence. I think Middle America is looking for Republicans to stand up and call balls and strikes fairly here.

And so while I think it would be a problem for the president, I don't subscribe to what some are suggesting that somehow this would be a problem for Republicans. I do think though that confirming someone else becomes extremely difficult. And this obviously then clouds or makes it all the more challenging to get Judge Kavanaugh through confirmation in the coming weeks.

BLITZER: Yes, he doesn't want to do anything that's going to undermine that confirmation process. And as you correctly point out, there are midterm elections, critically important midterm elections, coming up in November.

I've heard from some people who are close with Jeff Sessions. He really feels that he's got a job to do for the American people as being the attorney general. And he's afraid if he were to resign, for example, the next person who comes in might not necessarily do the job that he's trying to do. I assume you've heard similar things why he's not submitting his resignation.

COSTELLO: Well, added to that, Wolf -- I mean, look, I serve as a member of Congress, and there are some times where I bite my lip on things that I disagree with. And I think I'm best suited to do this job.

I think those that serve in government feel that they have a skill set and experience that they're best suited to do that job. Otherwise, why would they be doing it? I think in the case of the attorney general, who is a very conservative -- who is a very, very conservative U.S. senator, policy-wise, outside of this independent counsel issue, he has probably been as conservative and as principled and as aligned with the president on policy, immigration, drug enforcement, right on down the line, as any attorney general you could expect out of a conservative presidency.

So this really relates to one thing and one thing only, and that is, I think, he wants -- we can go back to what President Trump said about Eric holder. He had a lot of things that were negative towards President Obama and Eric Holder but the one thing he said was, he protected the president. And he wants an attorney general that's going to protect him from what he views as an illegitimate investigation.

I don't think it's illegitimate. Most people don't. I think Michael Cohen pleading to what he did, I think Paul Manafort pleading to what he did, and some of the other indictments that Mueller has secured with Russian interference demonstrate that it is a legitimate investigation.

BLITZER: Yes. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts. Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts.

But let me get your reaction to the other breaking news, Congressman, that the head of American Media, the parent company of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, a long-time friend and associate of Donald Trump -- of the president of the United States has been granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation, his testimony, setting up the hush money payment to Karen McDougal, the former playmate for $150,000, working together with Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer.

What's your reaction when you hear that he was granted immunity? And how much damage could he do to the president?

COSTELLO: Well, my hunch is that, he will confirm what Michael Cohen said, that there was some sort of coordination on paying these women in order to keep them quiet. I think there's an expectation that that's what will happen. I think a lot of the American public thinks that way.

The central question though is, is it a campaign violation or is it a federal crime? And then we ask ourselves the political question. Is paying off two women heading into an election in order to keep them quiet, to help you win an election, is that impeachable? And we know that's a political question.

And the irony here is that for as much as Republicans don't want to answer that question right now, is that an impeachable offense, Democrats don't want to answer that question. Because there are hints here of 1998 and President Clinton all over the place. And I think as this unfolds, we may even find more similarities between the two.

[13:25:01] But that's where we're headed in terms of what the American people are going to get exposed to, and what members of Congress are going to have to ask moving forward.

BLITZER: Congressman Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, he's a Republicans. Thanks so much for joining us.

COSTELLO: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we'll get more reaction. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley is about to join us. There you see him. He's standing by live

We'll follow up on this breaking news story including the attorney general's biting response to the president after the president publicly disparaged and rebuked him.

We'll be right back.