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Trump Responds to Sessions, Asks Him to Go Investigate Dems Critics; Trump Ally David Pecker Granted Immunity Deal; Manhattan District Attorney Considers Criminal Charges Against Trump Organization; National Enquirer Boss Granted Immunity in Cohen Case; GOP Lawmaker Says Party Needs to Do Better on Race; Ohio Governor Kasich Skipping GOP Dinner with Trump; GOP Candidates in Tight Races Grapple with Trump Legal Troubles. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:19] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Happy Friday. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. The president's feud with his ally turned top law enforcement officer Jeff Sessions just went into overdrive this morning, and another longtime ally of the president has flipped.

Publisher of the "National Enquirer," David Pecker, has been granted immunity for giving prosecutors information about the hush money payments Michael Cohen set up. That's according this morning to the "Wall Street Journal."

And there might be more bombshells to come. The A.P. is reporting that the "National Enquirer" had a literal safe, a throve of documents on the payments and stories it killed to protect Trump. This as the "New York Times" this morning is reporting the Manhattan D.A.'s office is mulling criminal charges against the Trump Organization over the payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels.

But first to the tweets we go and they are taking direct aim at the attorney general this morning, one day after Jeff Sessions punched back at the president really for the first time. So let's start there. Let's go to Abby Phillip, she joins me from the White House with more.

Not a slow Friday morning, Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. Things are not looking too good for Jeff Sessions. It seems like the situation with the president has gone from passive aggressive to just simply aggressive. Yesterday Jeff Sessions for the first time issued a statement responding directly to the president who in a FOX interview had criticized him for allegedly not taking control of the Justice Department when he was appointed as attorney general.

Here's what Sessions said. "I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in which is why we've had unprecedented success in effectuating the president's agenda. But then he adds, "While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations and to that President Trump this morning is literally quoting Jeff Sessions' statement and responding to it. He's saying, "Jeff, this is great, what everybody wants so look into all of the corruption on the other side." He continues, adding, "Come on, Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting."

The president also referenced a leaking investigation that resulted in a conviction of a woman named Reality Winner and she -- and he claims that was, quote, "small potatoes" compared to what Hillary Clinton did. He calls it unfair and a double standard so these two are really going head to head right now after months and months of the president attacking Sessions and Sessions saying almost nothing, but it doesn't appear that we're any closer to the president taking action against Sessions. This back and forth is happening in public.

Meanwhile, yesterday at the White House, Jeff Sessions was here at the White House and he had a meeting with President Trump and apparently didn't discuss any of this so I think they're content to just have this play out in public, and have no actions being taken while questions really continue to swirl about how long Jeff Sessions can continue on in this situation -- Poppy.

HARLOW: I mean, that is wild. Awkward alert, right?


HARLOW: All of these attacks, then they meet and they say nothing face to face about them.

All right, Abby, thank you.

With me now, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today" Susan Page and senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News Margaret Talev.

Margaret, back -- back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. What's different this time is that Jeff Sessions finally punched back in a big way yesterday. And then the president punches back at him this morning. Where does this go? Where do we land?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look to the Hill because that's where we're getting as much direction as anybody has. What you've seen over the last 24 hours is a couple of Republican senators -- key Republican senators like Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley appearing to give the president permission to get rid of his attorney general but I think there's another way to look at that also which is that they seem to be trying to save any action off until after the midterm elections, after the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh.

HARLOW: Right.

TALEV: To the Supreme Court, and I guess the strategic question is, are they really telling the president he should get rid of Jeff Sessions or are they just hoping they can slow walk this until things calm down but either way, I think if you're Bob Mueller you see November as a day on the calendar that you want to get your job done before just in case.

HARLOW: So, Susan, I mean, in his punch back yesterday Jeff Sessions listed the litany of things that he has been leading that are directly on point with what the president wanted, from enforcing immigration laws, you know, focusing on MS-13, for example, the gang, promoting economic growth, et cetera, et cetera.

I mean, do the practices of Jeff Sessions right now not assuage the president at all? I mean, I guess that he doesn't think Jeff Sessions is doing enough to go after frankly the president's political opponents and not being loyal enough, but he's executing many of the president's policies.

[09:05:01] SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Well, here's the remarkable thing. Jeff Sessions has been a remarkably effective attorney general on substantive issues but not on the issue that Donald Trump cares the most about, and that is the Russia investigation. And it's as though the other things that Sessions has done, some of them pretty controversial, in imposing the Trump agenda don't matter at all because President Trump is clearly focused first and foremost on this investigation that involves himself.

And we shouldn't lose sight of what a remarkable day yesterday was. President Trump attacking his attorney general. That's happened before. The attorney general having a public debate with the president of the United States insisting that he is going to shield the Justice Department from political interference.

HARLOW: Right.

PAGE: I just don't think we've seen that happen before.

HARLOW: No, it's really notable. I think as I was reading that Sessions statement, Margaret, every world was so carefully chosen, right? Shielding it from political influence, et cetera.

When you ask Republicans, as you said, look to the Hill, when you asked Republicans on the Hill, you do have opposing views, say with Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn. Let's hear.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think it would be a mistake and I don't think it would be good for the country.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a few face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president.


HARLOW: Margaret, ultimately where will the majority of Republicans in Congress fall on this?

TALEV: I think you have to wait until after the midterm elections. If the majority of Republicans are still the majority you may get a different response than if they are not. But to some extent what's happening now with the Supreme Court is paramount in all of their minds over this decision. Yes, of course the president has, you know, the ability to have the people he wants in top positions but if one of the litmus test for that position becomes a loyalty test, becomes political support of the president or investigations of the other side, as the president put it this morning.

The president obviously will either have a hard time finding a new attorney general or getting that new attorney general confirmed, and you can imagine if all of that played out now how damaging that effect could be both on the elections and on the prospects for judicial confirmation.

HARLOW: All right. So, guys, listen to this. Last night I had on an attorney and a friend of Jeff Sessions for the better part of three decades and I asked him about the likelihood that Jeff Sessions would just finally walk away from all this. Listen.


WILLIE HUNTLEY, JEFF SESSIONS' FRIEND FOR 30 PLUS YEARS: I believe Jeff believes in the heart and soul of the Department of Justice. I know this is probably his dream job because he has an opportunity to impact so many lives, and I just don't think he would voluntarily step aside. I don't think that is part of the makeup of Jeff Sessions.


HARLOW: So, Susan, I mean, do you agree? Is this someone who's going to have to be fired or is just going to stay?

PAGE: If Jeff Sessions was going to resign because Donald Trump wanted him to that would have happened already. I mean, that's been going on for months and months where the president has ridiculed and demeaned him. And if that was going to prompt the attorney general to leave that job, I think it would have already happened.

Jeff Sessions has not been the attorney general that many people expected him to be, predicted he would be when he was named to that job. He's turned out to be a much more independent figure.

HARLOW: All right. Thank you both, Susan Page, Margaret, appreciate you being here.

Now to the president's longtime friend and head of the "National Enquirer" David Pecker flipping.

Abby Phillip back with more from the White House with more.

You know, the two of these men, you cannot overstate how close they were. How they had one another's back. I mean, there was at one point when the president said the "National Enquirer" should win the Pulitzer Prize but David Pecker has flipped?

PHILLIP: That's right. And it's a really big development in a week of really enormous developments on all but it adds to what we already know about the Michael Cohen case which is that Cohen pled guilty to committing crimes during the campaign and he claimed that President Trump was aware of it and that he was a collaborator in that effort.

Now we're learning, according to the "Wall Street Journal" and "Vanity Fair" that David Pecker has gotten immunity in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors. Cooperation that essentially amounts to his corroboration of Michael Cohen's story or some parts of it.

Now this is huge because as you pointed out, David Pecker is a close friend of the president's. This kind of relationship in which Pecker would help him handle his private affairs, help him kill bad stories has been really a feature of their relationship for some time. And now it's completely ruptured.

This is in addition to what we know about this situation according to the Associated Press that the "National Enquirer" had a safe, a physical safe that kept some of these bad stories and documents related to these payments -- of payments to women who alleged to have affairs with President Trump in a physical safe, so there is potentially a trove of evidence that prosecutors may now have access to, and the president is now down one ally.

[09:10:12] He has one fewer friend in this fight. It could also be, Poppy, why we heard President Trump this week talking about flippers. He said, it should be outlawed, flipping in a case like this, giving prosecutors information in exchange for leniency. We could be seeing exactly why the president is so annoyed and angry about that situation -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Good point. Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you.

So on top of all of this, the legal problems could keep mounting. The "New York Times" this morning is reporting that the Manhattan district attorney's office may look into possible criminal charges against the Trump Organization.

Our reporter Kara Scannell joins me with more.

What is -- I know the D.A.'s office here in Manhattan hasn't decided yet. But what are they looking at that they're even mulling this?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. So the "Times" was reporting, they're citing two officials presumably with that office, that they're looking at or they're considering looking at whether the Trump Organization appropriately accounted for how they reimbursed Michael Cohen when Michael Cohen paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: So it would be an investigation into their books and records. How they accounted for the payment.

HARLOW: But didn't the president say -- you have to jog my memory. Remember in that Michael Cohen statement from June, I thought he said it wasn't the Trump Organization that paid me back, and didn't the president say that it was his money that paid him back? Or that's about Karen McDougal?

SCANNELL: Well, the president put in his financial disclosure form that he had reimbursed Michael Cohen.


SCANNELL: And what we learned from the charging document this week when Michael Cohen pled guilty to is that the money came from the Trump Organization.

HARLOW: Got it.

SCANNELL: It came from a trust. One of the payments at least.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: It's a little murky of what was -- the appropriate conduct there and the Trump Organization has declined to comment. They're not really explaining further.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: Why they -- why the money came from the trust. Whether it was reimbursed.

HARLOW: And what could be very significant about this is that if these charges are brought, this would be on the state level, and the president cannot pardon anything on a state level.


HARLOW: The federal level.

SCANNELL: That's the thing. The D.A.'s office. This would be a state charge. There's no federal pardon. The president could not pardon anyone who is charged on the state level.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: And the D.A.'s office is also investigating Paul Manafort so even if, as we hear there are these rumors, rumblings, that is the president considering pardoning Paul Manafort, the same D.A.'s office has an investigation into him. They haven't charged them but they are kind of lingering in the backdrop that if --

HARLOW: Interesting.

SCANNELL: -- Manafort was charged we could see the statement there, too.

HARLOW: OK. Kara, thank you for the reporting. Appreciate it.

Ahead for us, what does Pecker know? A closer look at the president's longtime friend turned flipper and why one former employee of the "National Enquirer" who worked very closely with David Pecker said he never thought his boss would have flipped on the president. Plus --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president better watch about the pardons because with the pardons, that he does that, it looks like it was set up by him.


HARLOW: What do voters think about the president's wild week? You'll hear from many of them. And indicted Congressman Duncan Hunter seeming to suggest his wife is to blame for $250,000 in misused campaign funds? They both pleaded not guilty to those accusations.


[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, HOST, NEWSROOM: There's a lot to get to this morning as yet another of the president's closest allies, David Pecker flips. Let's talk about this, Cnn media analyst Bill Carter is with me and Patrick Cotter joins me; he is a former federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York.

He's now a white collar defense attorney. Gentlemen, this morning -- and Bill, let me begin with you. When it comes to David Pecker, I mean, you were a media reporter for --


HARLOW: Twenty five years, this is what you live and breathe, he and the president were so close. "Vanity Fair" quotes one of -- one of the president's friends telling them when all this broke yesterday, "holy s, I thought Pecker would be the last one to turn."

And then last night, I spoke with Stu Zakim who used to run communications --

CARTER: Right --

HARLOW: For Pecker's company, here's what he told me.


HARLOW: You never thought he would turn?


HARLOW: Never --

ZAKIM: But one thing I'm going to say --

HARLOW: Yes --

ZAKIM: When it comes to David Pecker, the most important thing to him is business. It supersedes friendship and loyalty.


HARLOW: How worried should the president be about David Pecker? CARTER: Well, we don't know exactly all the things that he has

covered up for the president, when he -- before he was the president. He was courted by Trump. And Trump enjoyed being in tabloids and used the tabloids very effectively to build his own reputation in New York.

And we don't know all the things that he used Pecker to sort of bury. We know he has a safe full of things, apparently, I think he has a lot to worry about because Pecker may have, you know, vulnerability in this case and he might want to be able to give evidence that will protect him, and that's obviously what caused Michael Cohen to turn.

HARLOW: The safe thing, Patrick, is just like wow. If there is this physical safe out there as the "Associated Press" is reporting, right? Investigators have to be looking for it right now or have it?

PATRICK COTTER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes, it's amazing. In all my years as a federal prosecutor, I never had a witness who told me he had a safe full of evidence. That --


COTTER: That is -- ever --

HARLOW: And you helped prosecute John Gotti.

COTTER: That's right. I've had plenty of best friends, I've even had sons testify against fathers and fathers testify against sons, but none of them brought a safe of evidence. So it's amazing, it's not surprising that a friend would turn, that's what happens in these cases --

HARLOW: Sure --

COTTER: But it's amazing that there's a safe.

HARLOW: Patrick, can we talk about where the legal line is here? Because I read some really interesting analysis that of course, you know, the First Amendment gives the press wide latitude, but at the same time, there may have been a legal line that was stepped over here by AMI in terms of, you know, whether what it did was a direct campaign contribution.

[09:20:00] COTTER: Sure, I think the legal line is if this company or Mr. Pecker intentionally, knowingly took steps to cover up the payment, to make the payment look like it was coming from somebody else or being used for something else other than hush money, that crosses the line.

They can buy the story, what they can't do is try to make it look like somebody else paid for it --

HARLOW: Yes --

COTTER: Or that they aren't in fact burying the story.

HARLOW: Well, and here's the thing, Michael Cohen said under oath this week in court that this arrangement between he and AMI was quote, "for the principle purpose of influencing the election. So if the authorities believe him on that and he does have credibility issues, if they believe in that, that could be very legally problematic.

Bill, one former staffer for Pecker's company AMI said this to Ronan Farrow when he did that "Deep Out(ph)" in the "New Yorker" on all of this. Quote, "in theory, you would think that Trump has all the power in this relationship, but in fact, Pecker has the power, he has the power to run these stories, he knows where the bodies are buried."

CARTER: Yes, that's the big risk --

HARLOW: I mean, he -- Pecker is not the president, but does Pecker ostensibly have the upper hand --

CARTER: Well --

HARLOW: On the president right now, I mean --

CARTER: We don't know what information he has. But obviously, right now --

HARLOW: But not enough for the prosecutors to give him immunity --

CARTER: It's to make a deal, they obviously think what he has is valuable, and I think he's already told them what he has or else they wouldn't be making this deal. And whatever he has accumulated over the years may not be actually criminal, you know, they could just be scandalous things and they aren't really worth anything in this context. It's --

HARLOW: Prosecutors don't care about scandals, they care about the law --

CARTER: They don't care about scandals, they care about the law, so we don't know what exactly he has that is illegal that --

HARLOW: Right --

CARTER: Was done.

HARLOW: To that point, Patrick, I mean, explain to people what a queen for a day is, right? I mean, they wouldn't know --

COTTER: Right --

HARLOW: What they could get before they give him a deal.

COTTER: Right, getting immunity is not easy and it's not something done lightly. They would have demanded a good representation of what his evidence was. So they knew -- I won't say exactly, but they had a very good idea of what he had to offer before they took the extraordinary step of offering him immunity.

HARLOW: Because he can offer it up to them without facing, you know, charges, say here's what I got -- COTTER: Absolutely --

HARLOW: You know, are you -- are you --

COTTER: Absolutely --

HARLOW: Are you going to make me a deal or not? Look, one thing I think is important to note, Bill --

CARTER: Yes --

HARLOW: Is you know, this kind of intimidation to people over stories, it's nothing new.


HARLOW: Remember Msnbc morning host Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, they claimed that they got a call from the White House where they were basically threatened to stop saying negative things about the president.

CARTER: They were told they would have to sort of apologize to the president. They would have to --

HARLOW: Right --

CARTER: Come on the air and say, we're apologizing for our coverage or else the "National Enquirer" would run --

HARLOW: A bad story --

CARTER: That would embarrass them.

HARLOW: Let's listen to that moment because it was striking and maybe emblematic.


JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: We got a call that, hey, the "National Enquirer" is going to run a negative story against you guys, and it was, you know, Donald is friends with -- the president is friends with the guy that runs the "National Enquirer".

And they said if you call the president up and you apologize for your coverage, then he will pick up the phone and basically spike this story.


HARLOW: They didn't do that --

CARTER: Yes --

HARLOW: And the "National Enquirer" ran the story --

CARTER: It did ran the story, yes, and you can see why they were working hand in glove, Trump and -- even look at those headlines about Hillary during the campaign.

HARLOW: Yes, that's a good point.

CARTER: They were making staggering, unbelievably fictional claim --

HARLOW: I think they said that she was six months away from death --

CARTER: They said she had lung cancer, they said she had Alzheimer's, they said she was a gay, having gay assignations, they said all kinds of things --

HARLOW: They said Ted Cruz's father was part of the JFK assassination --

CARTER: Was part of the JFK -- I think they exposed Carson when he was a -- he was threat to -- he was -- they were doing Trump's bidding throughout that campaign, that was not a journalistic enterprise --

HARLOW: But Patrick, that in and of itself is not illegal --


HARLOW: Is it?

COTTER: Well, not necessarily, though extortion still is on the books, so --

HARLOW: Or defamation, that's another story, but --

COTTER: Or defamation, right -- no, I would say, though, that this is a good example of altruism in criminal activity. Criminal activities are always two-edged swords, they're useful to the criminal when he's using it to attack someone, but if you can find out about it and get evidence of it as Mr. Pecker may be providing, then it comes back to harm you.

So that's why I think Mr. Pecker's cooperation may come back to harm Mr. Trump and it may reveal additional crimes.

HARLOW: OK, Bill Carter, thank you, Patrick, thank you, keep it sunny in Chicago, I'll be there a little bit later today. I don't want any delays into O'Hare, thanks --

COTTER: I'll take care of it.

HARLOW: OK, thanks for joining me. One of the most powerful Republicans in Congress says his party needs to do more when it comes to bringing minorities, African-Americans into the fold.

[09:25:00] What is his plan, and frankly, does he think the president is helping or hurting?


HARLOW: President Trump and the first lady are heading to battleground Ohio, today. But don't expect to see a warm welcome from the state's top Republican Governor John Kasich. He will be a no-show at the Republican dinner headlined by the president tonight.

Not a surprise, given Kasich is one of the president's biggest critics within his own party, and all of this comes on quite a week for the administration. And Republicans across the country are faced with the choice -- speak out or stay mum.

North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Walker joins me, he chairs the powerful Republican Study Committee. Good morning, and thanks for being here.

REP. MARK WALKER (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Thanks, Poppy, glad to be here.

HARLOW: How would you assess this week for the Republican Party?

WALKER: Well, I think each week you have your ebbs and flows, sometimes we --