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American Media's David Pecker Granted Immunity in Michael Cohen Case; Democrats Suggest Stopping Kavanaugh Hearings after Cohen Guilty Plea; Sessions Pushes Back on Trump Criticism; Sen. Lindsey Graham Warns Trump Not to Get Rid of Sessions Before Midterms; Sen. Jeff Merkley Interviewed; Max Boot: Michael Cohen's Hush Money Revelations Make Trump's Presidency "Illegitimate". Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:30:15] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: More now on the breaking news. The "Wall Street Journal" reporting that the boss over at the "National Enquirer" has been granted immunity in the Michael Cohen case. David Pecker is a long-time friend of President Trump's. He was directly involved in one of the hush money payments made by Cohen to a woman alleging an affair with Donald Trump.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

I want to talk about Jeff Sessions and the feud he now has with the president of the United States. Let me, first, get your reaction to the fact that David Pecker, of American Media, the parent company of the "National Enquirer," a long-time friend of Donald Trump's, has been cooperating, testifying with the federal prosecutors in exchange for immunity.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY, (D), OREGON: Well, Wolf, I'll tell you that inquiring minds want to know exactly what information he has on the president. But it must be a significant amount of substantive information to be granted immunity in this fashion.

BLITZER: You make a good point. They wouldn't be granting an individual immunity unless they really believed that individual had relevant information, potentially, about crimes.

MERKLEY: And Michael Cohen has put forward his story. He's now pleaded guilty to eight felony charges. The White House is disputing his story. I think this fits into the picture of the prosecution in that case, saying let's make sure we bring in the perspectives that all bear on the legitimacy of Michael Cohen's testimony.

BLITZER: If there was corroboration from David Pecker, another editor at the "National Enquirer" who also is receiving immunity, from the various documents, the electronic information, all of that stuff that was collected in that early morning raid on Michael Cohen's apartment, his home, his hotel room, his safe deposit box, if there's backup information saying that the president directly coordinated and directed the payment to Karen McDougal, $150,000, the former Playmate, in advance of the election to make sure that information would not come out in the days leading up to the election, what does that mean to you?

MERKLEY: Well, in summary, Michael Cohen is saying the president directed me to commit a crime. The question is, is Michael Cohen's statement enough on its own? Certainly, I think given his history, any jury, any judge would look at that and say there has to be a stronger case than just Michael Cohen says so. I think that's probably exactly what they're locking down.

But then the question is, so, if the president is essentially an unindicted co-conspirator in this illegal campaign act, this felony, then at what point should we stop proceedings on Kavanaugh? Because, quite frankly, there's also great reasons to not consider him because we don't have the documentation on the positions he's taken in the past. The Republicans are vetting that information, only feeding a small amount to the Democrats. That's not the transparency you need to exercise advice and consent. Now there's a second massive conflict of interest of a president essentially trying to print himself a get- out-of-jail-free card.

BLITZER: But you would need a Republican or two in order to get a simple majority to hold back on that consideration of Brett Kavanaugh to be a United States Supreme Court justice, isn't that right? You can't just do it with Democrats. You're in the minority.

MERKLEY: No, that's absolutely right. I go back to the health care debate where so many people thought that because the Republicans in the majority, because they had campaigned against the Affordable Care Act, they would wipe out health care for 22 million to 32 million Americans. We kept hoping that at least one Republican Senator or at least two would step forward and say, we really do care about the health care of Americans, we're not going to do this. That happened. In this case, we want one or two Senators to step forward and say, we really do care about a legitimate confirmation process for something as important as the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: You might need more than one or two because there could be two or three or maybe four Democratic Senators who will go along with the Republicans at this critically important time just before the midterm elections.

Let me move on to another issue, Senator, while I have you. The attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, now publicly pushing back against the latest very brutal criticism from the president of the United States. What do you think? What's your reaction?

MERKLEY: Well, there's many things that Jeff Sessions has done that I completely disagree with. I disagree with his horrific child snatching policy. I disagree with his pushing for the Muslim ban based on one's religion. I disagree on his cannabis policy. But in this case, he is right to push back against a president who is saying he wants a personal lawyer in the position of attorney general. That is not what the position of the attorney general is. There's a higher obligation to the law. For Jeff Sessions to say, I will not be improperly influenced, obviously is a direct response to what the president has been saying publicly.

[13:35:28] BLITZER: Yes, this feud escalating right now very, very dramatically.

Senator Merkley, thanks for joining us.

MERKLEY: Thank you. And I'm on my way to sit in on that meeting between Sessions and the president. It will be interesting.

BLITZER: Let us know what happens over there at the White House.

Appreciate it. Thank you very much.

MERKLEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're going to continue following the breaking news. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions now arriving, as Senator Merkley said, at the White House amid this very public feud with the president of the United States.



[13:40:30] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The president's entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that's qualified for the job. And I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president.


BLITZER: That was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying he expects President Trump to fire Jeff Sessions but after the midterm elections, warning him to wait until after those elections.

Let's discuss this extraordinary development.

Richard, I'm curious, you were a former Watergate special prosecutor, a federal prosecutor. What do you make of this battle that is now under way? The president humiliating the attorney general very directly in this FOX News interview and now the direct statement from Sessions saying I've got a job to do.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: This is very, very bizarre among a plethora of bizarre things that occurred. The president is acting like a new jersey crime boss. He has talked about cooperating defendants, which are a federal prosecution, in drug cases, organized crime, you name it, pornography, child abuse. Unless you are in a position to put pressure on an individual who then gives up other criminal activities and other criminal actors, you can't operate as a federal prosecutor. Many of the members of Congress, former prosecutors, they have to know that what the president is saying is totally out of bounds. It's totally anathema to our criminal justice system to be attacking the idea of a guilty individual giving up others and hoping to reduce his sentence. That doesn't mean they're giving false testimony. Prosecutors are very careful to make sure that doesn't happen. So saying -- calling cooperating witnesses, like John Dean, who was the most corroborated witness in my 50 years of practicing law, a rat, because he told the truth and the jury believed him, and he was corroborated by the Watergate tapes in everything that he said, that's bizarre. Somewhere along the line, particularly talking about giving a pardon to Manafort, members of Congress have got to scratch their heads and say, how do I go back home to my constituents? Do they earn $60 million and then refuse to pay taxes on it? Hide that money, lie to banks, get convicted by a jury in Virginia, and then get a pardon? What is the president saying when he considers such a thing? And does that once again bring into sharp focus the fact the president himself has refused to divulge his own tax returns?

BLITZER: Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman, convicted on eight counts of stealing from the American people millions of dollars that he owed the American people by refusing to acknowledge the money he was receiving from the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in Ukraine. At the same time, not acknowledging that he had that money and not declaring he was a foreign agent. That's another trial that's going to be coming up in the next month as well.

When people around the world, Samantha, look at what's going on here in Washington right now, and you've been doing a lot of analysis on this, what do they see?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: From the Russian perspective, talk about America divided. The president and he is team are trading warring statements on the law enforcement system. Obviously, a win for Russia. But, Wolf, I've worked on foreign assistance around the world. A key pillar of our foreign assistance program is promoting the rule of law in developing countries and with our allies and partners. At this point, how do the State Department, USAID, and others, say you should have an independent judiciary? There should not be an abuse of power by an executive branch to influence investigations in a country when we're not practicing what we're preaching abroad here at home when the president tries to abuse his power. And finally, if you're a foreign country, whether an enemy or a friend, logically speaking, would you invest as much effort in negotiating with President Trump right now, watching this legal imbroglio swirling around, knowing he may not last that long. There's a strong chance there are going to be moves against him. Again, logically, I think you're going to step back, wait and see what happens, and probably not engage as substantively.

[13:45:13] BLITZER: Laura Coates, when the president goes after those individuals who, quote, "flip," he says it should almost be like a crime to flip. Explain what that means. These individuals -- the president basically saying to these individuals, don't cooperate with the FBI, with law enforcement, and don't become a rat.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That means that the president of the United States fundamentally misunderstands the role of the executive branch of government, which he is the head of. Under it is the Department of Justice and the FBI. There's a concerted effort to try to get corroboration and people to cooperate with information that you would not otherwise be able to have. As Ben was saying, it doesn't mean you're giving false testimony because you have an advantage about why you cooperated or how you cooperated. We want to incentivize people being forthcoming with the federal government and federal investigators. The executive branch is well aware of that. Jeff Sessions is well aware of that. The person who's not well aware of it is the president of the United States.

And it's for what he specifically is targeting and emasculating him about. It's an area for which he himself may be a subject or a target of an investigation. So it's him saying, I do not care whether you support me in every other area of the law and order I've talked about on the campaign trail and going forward, but if I myself would ever be considered not above the rule of law, then I want something done about it. That fundamentally subverts the entire system. He needs a civics lesson or at least a reminder that this particular attorney general, he may work the at pleasure of the president, but he works for the people of the United States.

BLITZER: Take us inside the White House, Margaret. You cover the White House for us. What are they thinking over there?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You have seen them sort of dial back the way they're making public statements and public pronouncements as it has become clear with each revelation over the last 48 hours that the fact basis they've been given to go out to the podium and talk about may not be accurate. It is now their own reputations on the line and all of them have some degree of either legal jeopardy or at least being brought into this legal investigation. You're going to see a retrenchment, trying to be careful about what you now say from a podium because it may not be true. You see that.

And when it comes to General Sessions, what you're seeing now is November as a really important piece of timeline. That's now perhaps the boundary of how much time Mr. Mueller has, perhaps the boundary of how much time Mr. Sessions has, perhaps the time frame is shorter. So inside the White House now, the public posture is everything is fine, we're not in a crisis. That was their posture as of yesterday. Internally, you're going to see a retrenchment and figuring out of what they want to discuss publicly and how they want to discuss it.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following.

Lots of breaking news today. I'll speak with a conservative writer making waves right now for arguing that Michael Cohen's hush money revelations make President Trump's presidency right now, in his words, "illegitimate."


[13:52:38] BLITZER: We're watching a very public fight play out right now between the president of the United States and the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. Sessions, by the way, he's over at the White House right now for a previously scheduled meeting on prison reform.

As we watch that, I want to bring in CNN global affairs analyst, Max Boot. He's joining us right now.

Max, you've written a very explosive new article in the "Washington Post" calling the president illegitimate. Explain to our viewers.

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, this is based on what's happened the last few days. Not just the conviction of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, on eight felony counts, and not just the fact Michael Cohen his longtime personal lawyer, also pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, but the fact Michael Cohen said in court that Donald Trump, his client, directed him to break federal campaign laws when he paid off these two women who allegedly had affairs with Donald Trump. So for the first time since Watergate, Wolf, we have a president who is an unindicted co-conspirator charged with violating federal law. That's an unprecedented situation. And what I believe is that Donald Trump is actually even more illegitimate than Richard Nixon, because nobody imagined that the Watergate break-in on Richard Nixon the election. It was a landslide. Look how close the 2016 election was, decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. Clearly, Donald Trump believed it was imperative to pay off these women, otherwise he might lose the election. We also know the Russians intervened in the election on his behalf. And we have reason to believe that Michael Cohen might provide more testimony evidence on that. And so when you take the Russian intervention, the fact that Trump violated campaign finance laws to pay off these women, that's how he won the election. So I believe, fundamentally, at this point, he is an illegitimate president. We're in a situation we never faced before.

BLITZER: You say members of Congress are being enablers. Explain.

BOOT: Well, when you have a situation like this, think it's imperative for Congress to open an impeachment inquiry. Here the president has been implicated in court on violating federal law. That's something we cannot allow as a nation dedicated to the rule of law. The president is not carrying out his oath of office. He's trying to obstruct the investigation. And he's been caught out in having apparently violated federal law. So maybe he has a good defense. He certainly has not presented one today. Congress should be opening an impeachment inquiry instead of trying to look the other way and pretend this is not happening. Republicans are violating their oaths of office. They're not taking seriously the ways in which Donald Trump is violating his oath of office.

[13:55:20] BLITZER: All right. Max Boot, helping us appreciate what he sees as the enormity of this crisis right now. Max, thank you very much.

This just coming in to CNN. Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and wife pleading not guilty to charges of stealing campaign funds, spending it on everything from lavish meals to vacations to a plane ticket for a pet rabbit. Stand by. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)