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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

John McCain Ending Cancer Treatment; Trump Organization CFO Granted Immunity in Cohen Probe; Longtime Trump Org Financial Chief Granted Immunity; Sources: Trump Has Broached Firing Sessions Several Times. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:05]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: He's the man who knows where the financial bodies are buried.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news. The man who may know the details of every deal Donald Trump has ever made has immunity. No, this isn't yesterday's headline. It's somebody new.

Blowing his top. New reporting on how close President Trump has come through firing the attorney general. Will Jeff Sessions make it to happy hour today?

Plus, always a warrior. Sad news about the ailing Senator John McCain's health and some poignant thoughts he shared with our own Jake Tapper.

Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with our politics lead.

Another huge blow to President Trump. His longtime financial gatekeeper, Allen Weisselberg, granted immunity by federal prosecutors, a source tell CNN. Weisselberg is the highest ranking executive at the Trump Organization who isn't named Trump.

One source telling CNN Weisselberg knows where all of the financial bodies are buried. He's mentioned on that infamous Cohen-tape which implied he helped arrange the hush money Playmate Karen McDougal.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, you know, so that -- I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up and I've spoken...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Give it to me and (INAUDIBLE)

COHEN: And, I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

COHEN: ... funding.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

HILL: The news of his immunity deal comes the day after Trump lashed out about people flipping.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Everything's wonderful, and then they get 10 years in jail, and they -- they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go.

It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Since that interview taped on Wednesday, we have learned Trump friend and ally "National Enquirer" boss David Pecker also got immunity.

And now the Trump board CFO. All of this of course, on top of that plea deal for Trump's fixer and longtime attorney, Michael Cohen. Hard to believe that was just Tuesday.

I want to bring in CNN's Athena Jones.

Athena, this is, as we point out, another major blow when we're talking about President Trump's inner circle.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Erica.

That's right. Allen Weisselberg is just the latest shoe to drop, and he could prove to be particularly problematic for the president. When Weisselberg was subpoenaed in the Cohen probe last month, a former Trump Organization employee called it the ultimate nightmare scenario for Trump because of how much Weisselberg knows.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): In what could be a new blow to President Trump, sources tell CNN Trump Organization moneyman Allen Weisselberg granted immunity to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty this week to breaking campaign finance laws and implicated Trump in his plea deal.

TRUMP: Replacing George this week is my chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. And you think George is tough. Wait until you see Allen.

JONES: Weisselberg, the company's chief financial officer, seen here on an episode of "The Apprentice," has worked for Trump for decades. As one former employee put it, "He knows we're all of the proverbial financial bodies are buried, every sale, every deal, anything and everything that's been done." And he personally gave Trump updates on these matters.

A source familiar CNN Weisselberg's interview with investigators took place weeks ago and focused on Cohen and the hush money payments to two women claiming to have had affairs with Trump, which he denies.

COHEN: And, I spoke to Allen about it, when it comes time for the financing.

JONES: Weisselberg figures prominently in the secret recording Cohen released last month of a conversation he had with Trump two months before the 2016 presidential election about payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

COHEN: And, I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

JONES: Another person mentioned on that tape, "National Enquirer" chief David Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump's who also received an immunity deal from prosecutors.

According to "The Wall Street Journal," Pecker backed up details Cohen spelled out in his plea deal, telling prosecutors Trump was aware of the deals at the time, despite claiming to know nothing about them.

Making matters worse, "The New York Times" reports the Manhattan district attorney's office is considering pursuing criminal charges against the Trump Organization and two senior company executives in connection with Cohen's payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Trump's legal team declined to comment on the Weisselberg news, but Trump made it clear what he thought about immunity deals during the campaign.

TRUMP: And you're not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now, the Manhattan DA's review is in the very early stages, and no decision has been made.

But according to "The Times," a state investigation would focus on how the Trump Organization accounted for its reimbursement to Michael Cohen for his payment to Stormy Daniels.

[16:05:02]

And one more thing about Weisselberg. Our source tells us he has not been called back for additional questioning since that interview weeks ago. So it's unclear at this point whether or when he will be questioned again -- Erica.

HILL: Athena Jones with the latest for us, Athena, thank you. We want to take a closer look at this now. And, first of all, we want

to put it in perspective.

We're joined by Bill Kristol, Kirsten Powers, Scott Bolden, and Kevin Madden.

And, Kirsten, I want to throw this to you. Just put it in perspective for me. As we look at this week, Weisselberg is the man who knows where all the financial bodies are buried. How big is this?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Oh, I actually think this is legitimately huge.

I know a lot of times we say that things are really a big deal, and people wonder if they are. And I think that this is really a big deal precisely because this is somebody who is in the Trump Organization who, as you said, knows where all the bodies are buried and knows much more than just about this issue, right?

So this is just -- I'm operating under the assumption that this isn't the only deal that Donald Trump was involved in that was probably illegal and in this case this definitely was illegal. So I think you're really honing in on the core of where Donald Trump was operating with Michael Cohen.

And now this latest news.

HILL: Looking at it strictly from a legal perspective, Scott, though, if we're talking simply about Michael Cohen in this case, the fact that there was immunity granted for the CFO of the Trump Organization and also the CEO of American Media, David Pecker, does that tell you that this is limited -- limited, rather, to Michael Cohen, or do you believe there could be something more to come out of it?

A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: Well, these immunity deals at the federal level and state level are never limited.

And I'm a former prosecutor from the Manhattan DA's office, the very office that the report just came out about. And so these immunity deals are broad, they're not very limited. And so what's dangerous about Weisselberg is he knows where the financial bodies are buried.

He prepared tax returns. He knows every deal. But watch this now. Before you get immunity with the federal prosecutors or state, you have got to do a proffer. And so he and his lawyer went in and proffered on not only why they weren't guilty, but they proffered on what they knew about the organization. And that could span numerous years, numerous deals.

You could almost ask him anything, including about the tax returns. Secondly, what documents have they look for and asked for? This is a huge deal. And you can see and hear and feel the screws tightening around President Trump and his organization.

HILL: As we look at this, and we look at just the week that was, if we're looking at the circle that is close to President Trump, we have got the plea deal, of course, as you see there with Michael Cohen, we have Allen Weisselberg, Paul Manafort, David Pecker.

Kevin, is there a sense that Donald Trump's circle here is in fact beginning to crumble?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I think that's one of the problems.

And, look, over the last year, as we have been looking at all these multiple investigations that are taking place, multiple inquiries, one trend line has been very consistent. The evidence keeps piling up, meaning that there's more and more evidence of wrongdoing that is close to the president.

And then the other thing is that the circle keeps drawing closer to the president. I think with the CFO of his company, one of the big problems there is it takes away one of the main arguments that the president keeps deploying whenever something bad happens to someone near him, which is that this is somebody who was very limited in their interactions with me and didn't -- I didn't do a lot of business with.

This is your CFO. This is -- that takes away that argument right away. So that continues to be one of the challenges that Trump and his legal team will have to keep enduring.

HILL: Well, Kevin, just to push on that point, too, it's not only it's tough to distance yourself from Weisselberg. We saw him try with Michael Cohen this week. That clearly didn't work.

But if you're looking at this from a messaging perspective, we do see -- and there's been reporting on it this week -- that when Donald Trump is backed into a corner, we're told from sources close to him, this is when we see him react. And this is when we see him tweet out, which is what we have been seeing an increase of this week.

Based on what you're saying in terms of things getting closer to him, how damaging is he to himself this week?

MADDEN: Yes, well, he's probably going to have a lot of downtime this weekend. So we will probably see more tweeting.

The other problem too, is that for somebody who has always preached about loyalty, Donald Trump seems to have always been engaged in a little bit more self-preservation. And what we have seen from the people now that were closest to him, as much as they always talked -- or pledged their loyalty to Donald Trump, now we see with Michael Cohen and his CFO they're engaged in their own level of self- preservation.

And that has got to be difficult for the president to process.

HILL: It's interesting you bring up loyalty, because, of course, that was in the president's book in 2007.

"I think the reason we have so many loyal people is that we reward loyalty and everybody knows this. It's become part of the corporate culture of the Trump Organization. People like Allen Weisselberg are great and have proven themselves over many years."

[16:10:00]

HILL: Kirsten, obviously, things are changing a little bit.

When we look at what was written in 2007 and where we stand today, loyalty apparently only goes so far.

POWERS: Right.

Well, I have always said, with Donald Trump, though, it all only goes one -- in one direction, really. And so he expects loyalty from people. But he's not very loyal in return.

And certainly people close to him would know this. And so they would know what to expect from him in a situation like this. And, look, people -- people will do a lot for people that they are loyal to, up to a point.

And going to jail usually isn't one of those things, unless it's for a child or a close family member, maybe. But somebody's not going to do that in this situation. And so when people are caught up in something that is clearly a crime, then this is exactly what I would expect them to do.

You could -- I guess you could play the game of thinking that you could try to get a pardon, but in this case, it's not really going to help you anyway. So -- and that's a dangerous game to play with Donald Trump, you know, for some -- even for somebody like Paul Manafort.

So I think that -- yes, I think that it's just a one-way street with him.

HILL: And, Bill, when it comes to immunity deals this week, of course, the other big one that we saw this week was for American Media CEO David Pecker, American Media, publisher of "The National Enquirer."

The AP reporting that there was actually a safe at "The National Enquirer" where they kept these documents on hush money payments, other damaging stories about President Trump that they didn't want out there, though, when you look at it, I mean, how concerning is it that we're talking about a tabloid that has a safe full of potentially damaging information on the president of the United States?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": It adds the kind of this is a bad the awful and you don't know whether to laugh or cry kind of aspect of it.

But at the end of the day, you know, there are crimes are there aren't crime. It doesn't matter whether they were tabloid publishers, or lawyers, or CFOs or third parties.

And I think the main lesson is, people have mentioned this a little bit already, is you just -- these legal investigations are serious. You know, we're so used to media firestorms and Trump says something and there's two days of outrage.

At the end of the day, what are you going to do about it? He's still president, the media thing fades away, we're onto another story. That is not how legal investigations work.

One thing leads to another. And competent people with the resources of the federal government behind them, the level of Bob Mueller on the one hand and Southern District of New York on the other, that's just a whole different story. And so it's not as if Trump can wish this away, or have a better P.R. strategy or spin something.

At the end of the day, Mueller knows A, B or C. And because he knows A, B or C, he's going to learn D, E and F. And then persons -- to mix the metaphor -- G, H and I are going to decide they should cooperate, because you don't really get to choose to cooperate.

Either you go to jail, or tell the truth. So I think this is why this week was such a big week. It really feels like an inflection point in the whole the whole saga.

HILL: Yes. And then we wanted to get started on the L, M, N, O, P.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: Thank you all.

There is new reporting about how the president's aides have had to stop him from firing the attorney general several times. And that was before Jeff Sessions punched back.

Plus, in his first interview after receiving the diagnosis, Senator John McCain was reflecting on his life and legacy, this as we learn today he's made a tough decision to end treatment for the aggressive form of brain cancer he's battling,.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:18] ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: He was the money man for Donald Trump, the treasurer of his charity. He prepared President Trump's tax returns and kept them secret, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization.

Now, sources tell CNN he shared some of that inside knowledge with prosecutors, telling them what he knew about payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal perhaps.

So much to talk about as we dive in with CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeff, as we look at all of this, and the revelation has come to light that CNN has learned about this immunity for Allen Weisselberg, why would he need immunity in the first place?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, defense lawyers are cautious and this is a complicated white collar investigation. Defense lawyers never know exactly what prosecutors are looking for. So, it is often the case that they say to prosecutors, look, my guy won't talk to you unless you give him immunity. That doesn't mean he is guilty of any crime. That doesn't mean he's even being investigated for any crime, but he was certainly involved with Michael Cohen. We know he was referred to on the tape that CNN made public.

So his lawyers said, he needs immunity before you talk to him. They undoubtedly did what's called a proffer session. They told the prosecutors what he would say if he had immunity. And they gave him immunity. That's sort of how the system works.

HILL: But that's important to touch on too, because it's not like prosecutors are just handing out immunity like candy. All right, are you sure want immunity? OK, we'll bring you in. There has to be credible information. There has to be a real reason for them to say yes.

TOOBIN: Right. There has to be, you know, useful information and there has to be a person, the person who's getting immunity who's not your major target because if you give someone immunity, you basically can't prosecute them.

HILL: Right.

TOOBIN: So, those two things, useful information and not a principle target. That's what you can conclude about anyone who gets immunity.

HILL: So, from what we know here, this interview happened a few weeks ago. Hasn't been called back since. Anything to read into that?

TOOBIN: Well, certainly the fact that both David Pecker, the head of American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer", and Weisselberg were useful in getting a guilty plea of Michael Cohen. They were obviously important witnesses if there was an indictment and then a trial of Michael Cohen. That, of course, is not going to happen because he's pled guilty.

The question we don't know the answer to is, are they witnesses in a further investigation? Is there anything more that prosecutors want out of them? Because now that they have immunity, prosecutors can ask them anything. And -- but that is part of the story we don't know. And, you know, we'll find out down the road.

HILL: Also, part of what we don't know is, so, when all this comes out, the president especially on Tuesday is saying about Michael Cohen, this has nothing to do with Russia.

[16:20:07] OK. But we know that this is information that the Mueller team passed on to the Southern District. Is it possible that the Southern District could be finding things that may of interest to Robert Mueller? They pass it back to him and then we end up full circle?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. One of the things you do as a federal prosecutor is you stay in touch with other federal prosecutors. They're often rivalries. They're sometimes contentious. Who makes the big cases and perfectly routine and perfectly appropriate for prosecutors whose jurisdictions somewhat overlap to talk to each other.

Do we want do give this witness immunity? Will that interfere with one of your investigations? Who is better situated to make the case against person X? All of those conversations going on all the time, and I am certain there are conversations going on between the Southern District and Mueller's office. What the resolution is of those, of course, I don't know.

HILL: Yes. That's still a great unknown.

As we look at what happened this week, the president a number of headlines coming out of the interview he did with Fox News. Some harsh reviews. Noting that the president, of course, turned to a Fox friend for the conversation, which was criticized for some softball questions.

But it wasn't all criticism. The point also made that Ainsley Earhardt actually allowed the president to do most of the talking. That's one of the ways that we learn things obviously because this president doesn't give a lot of interviews.

Could it also be a prime example, Jeffrey Toobin, of perhaps why his lawyers do not want him to sit down with Robert Mueller?

TOOBIN: You know, that is certainly true. He -- the president says unpredictable and untrue things frequently. I mean, I think everyone is familiar with "The Washington Post's" list of 4,000 false statements he's made since being president.

But in fairness to the president, it needs to be emphasized, this is someone who has testified under oath a whole bunch of times. He's had a litigious life, in civil lawsuits, disputes about his real estate business, and he's given a lot of depositions. He's never been charged with making false statements in those depositions, doesn't usually happen in civil cases.

So, he's not quite the rube and the loose cannon that sometimes people make him out to be, but cautious lawyers knowing that their client is a risky proposition always prefer say nothing.

HILL: Jeffrey Toobin, appreciate it as always, my friend. Thank you.

TOOBIN: Thanks.

HILL: We've seen the tweets. Perhaps you've wondered, could today be the day President Trump fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Up next, first reporting here on THE LEAD about just how close he's come to saying those words -- you're fired.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:409] HILL: As some of the president's closest friends and allies talk to authorities, we're learning more about what sparked President Trump to add more fuel to his ongoing feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, complaining on Twitter about the Russia investigation and that Sessions hasn't investigated Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

The president writes, come on, Jeff. You can do it. The country is waiting.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us.

So, Kaitlan, I feel like a bit of a broken record but I have to ask the question. If the relationship is this bad, why hasn't the president just fired his attorney general?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, that's the question on everyone's mind here in Washington. Of all the grievances that President Trump has, Jeff Sessions is certainly his loudest, and though he's come close to firing him on multiple occasions, sources tell CNN that the president voiced concern about crossing a line with the special counsel Robert Mueller if he does fire him. The question now is, how long can that last?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump taunting his attorney general today as their bitter feud escalates. The president urging Jeff Sessions to investigate his political enemies telling him, come on, Jeff. You can do it. The country is waiting.

Trump with a checklist for Sessions, including but not limited to James Comey, Robert Mueller, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr and the Clintons. The presidential jabs coming after a night of fuming in the White House residence after Sessions hit back, pledging to keep politics out of the Justice Department. Adding, I took control the day I was sworn in.

His statement a blunt response to the president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Jeff Sessions, never took control of the Justice Department and it's a sort of incredible thing.

COLLINS: The clash now over a year in the making. And it all goes back to this.

TRUMP: Jeff Sessions recused himself which he shouldn't have done or he should have told me.

COLLINS: And new tonight, sources telling CNN Trump has come close to firing Sessions several times but his advisers have convinced him to wait, arguing it could damage his politically and create more problems with Mueller. Trump making clear to aides he has the absolute right to fire sessions if he wants to while taking their advice for now.

Though Trump has upped the attacks on the special counsel on recent days --

TRUMP: Mr. Mueller is highly conflicted. In fact --

COLLINS: -- sources say he's wary of crossing a line with him by firing Sessions.