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Trump Hammers Sessions Day After AG Fires Back; Trump Ally David Pecker Granted Immunity Deal; Manhattan District Attorney Considers Criminal Charges Against Trump Organization; 22 Children Killed While Evacuating Bombed-out Homes. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- damaging stories about the president held inside. All of this as we're learning this morning that the Trump Organization is now reportedly under scrutiny over the Stormy Daniels payoff, the New York attorney general, according to "The New York Times," the New York -- the Manhattan D.A., I should say, rather, is mulling charges.

We've got team coverage standing by. Let's go first to the White House this morning.

And, Abby, let's -- Kara Scannell, we'll be with you in a moment. And Abby, let's talk about Sessions. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I thought maybe yesterday when Sessions lashed out at the president and the president didn't respond, you know, maybe this thing was getting somewhere. But no, it changed this morning.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It did change. And it changed in a big way. I mean, you're seeing a kind of public back and forth that we haven't really seen before. Jeff Sessions typically takes it. The president has been attacking him for months. And he typically doesn't really respond. But this time was different.

President Trump insinuated in an interview with FOX yesterday that Sessions had not taken control of the Justice Department since he was appointed. In session's statement, he responded directly to that assertion saying, I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in. He adds, that while I am attorney general, the actions of the department will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.

That seems to be a direct response to the president's desire for Sessions to protect him in this Mueller probe. Now the president has not responded to that, quoting Jeff Sessions' original statement and adding, "Jeff, this is great, what everyone wants. So look into all the corruption on the other side." He goes on to add, "Open up the papers and documents without redaction, come on, Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting."

The president also brought up this case of a leaker who was prosecuted by the Department of Justice, by the way, at the president's request to go after leakers. And he says, this is small potatoes compared to what Hillary Clinton did. So unfair, Jeff. Double standard. So the president not backing down at all. And this is becoming a real

face-to-face confrontation, except that yesterday Jeff Sessions was here at the White House. They had a meeting about prison reform. They did not as far as we know get into it about these issues. So the president seems to be willing to do this on social media, to attack Sessions, in interviews but not to his face.

It really is begging the question, how long is this going to go on? But clearly, Jeff Sessions is taking a different strategy now than he has been up until this point -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Right. All right. Where does this go? Abby, thanks.

Joining me now to talk about that, political analyst and chief political correspondent, Ryan Lizza and CNN political analyst Rachel Bade.

Ryan, I will say it is sort of notable after that meeting at the White House where awkwardly apparently they didn't talk about any of this. Jeff Sessions actually did get the president on his side for now at least when it comes to sort of tabling criminal justice reform ahead of the midterms. And that -- you know, that is significant. Where --

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

HARLOW: Where do we go from here?

LIZZA: And you know, I will say, Trump does have a habit of tweeting and saying publicly things about people that he doesn't actually say privately and in person. So you could easily see him tweeting all these criticisms of Jeff Sessions but then in person acting like nothing's happened. There's a long list of examples of Trump doing that kind of thing.

HARLOW: Sure.

LIZZA: Where does it go from here? I mean, you know, these legal issues for the White House or for President Trump seem to be snowballing. I mean, we haven't even talked this week about the other -- the civil suits that he's exposed to, right? The Michael Avenatti suit out in California with Stormy Daniels will now proceed.

HARLOW: True.

LIZZA: There's the -- forgive me if I'm getting her name wrong, Summer Zervos has a --

HARLOW: Yes. That's right.

LIZZA: A civil suit that has gone forward and looks like it's going to get off the ground. And we might have Michael Avenatti deposing the president. And then we have the D.A. in Manhattan now looking into the Trump Organization's finances. That's all outside of the core Mueller investigation which is like this submarine operating under the surface that we don't even begin to know.

HARLOW: And didn't we see with the Clinton administration, Ryan, I think it was Gennifer Flowers, that, you know, on these civil cases.

LIZZA: Yes.

HARLOW: He could have to deal with them while he is sitting. Right.

LIZZA: Absolutely. The Supreme Court ruled I believe 9-0 that presidents do have to deal with civil suits while in office. In fact, the person who was behind the legal arguments in that case was a guy named George Conway who is now the husband of Kellyanne Conway.

HARLOW: Yes. There you go.

Rachel, to you. You know, Sessions punching back yesterday was a first. Something happened yesterday where it was just too much for Jeff Sessions. You know, the straw that broke the camel's back. Because you read that statement that Abby just went through for us, every single word is chosen so carefully. He says, I, quote, "will not be improperly influenced by political -- you know, by political motives, Mr. President." What broke?

[10:05:08] RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Perhaps he feels like his days are numbered and he needs to get out there on the record why he has and hasn't done certain things at the Justice Department that the president wants him to do.

Look, there was a firewall of protection around Sessions for a long time up on Capitol Hill. And that firewall, it's sizzling out. There used to be that senators and the Alabama delegation came out very forcefully to protect him whenever the president either, you know, lambasted him for something or suggested that he might fire him or get rid of him. Senators said, we don't want to deal with another attorney general confirmation fight right now.

HARLOW: Right.

BADE: Well, that's shifted. And you heard Senator Lindsey Graham say yesterday that he is fine with the president getting rid of Sessions.

HARLOW: Let's hear that, Rachael. Sorry to interrupt you. But listen to both Cornyn and Graham.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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 new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: So on that, Rachael, I mean, where do you think the majority of the Republican Party in Congress lands, on whose side, Cornyn's or Graham's on that? BADE: I would say the majority still with Sessions. Cornyn is the

number two Senate Republicans, what he says carries a lot of weight. And senior Republicans on the Senate do not want this confirmation battle right now. But there is no doubt that Sessions is losing support on the Hill. For instance, I called Gary Palmer, who is a Republican from Alabama, close with Sessions, yesterday to get his take on this sort of back and forth.

And at one point Gary Palmer was very adamantly defending and blasting his colleagues who were in any way criticizing Sessions. But Gary Palmer told me he has his own problems with Sessions. And he specifically listed some of those things that the president was tweeting about this morning regarding document production to Congress, Rod Rosenstein perhaps not being the best person to be working in the Justice Department, according to him.

And he was unhappy with certain things that Sessions was doing. So I just -- I think it's really interesting, the conversation is changing. And I don't think that's a good sign for Sessions. It's a matter of time, I think, before he goes.

HARLOW: Ryan, help me understand with all of the litany of things you just listed, including the civil threats facing the president, why does it behoove him or at least does he think it behooves him to have this public spat with the attorney general right now?

LIZZA: Well, first of all, can I just say this? That's why I love being on with Rachael because she always brings fresh reporting.

HARLOW: Isn't that interesting with -- I was thinking we should have booked him.

(LAUGHTER)

LIZZA: So, you know, I think that is really fascinating that what Lindsey Graham said because Graham in general has been a sort of defender of the Justice Department, has tried his best to steer Trump towards not doing anything too stupid, tried to argue that Trump, you know, just -- at the very least politically if not just, you know, for democracy's sake that he shouldn't interfere with the investigations, he shouldn't fire anyone. So I do find it really interesting that Graham is just sort of out there saying that Sessions' days are numbered, which I think undermines Sessions quite a bit. It makes him look like a lame duck.

HARLOW: Right.

LIZZA: So that's a key development there. I think Trump has been informed that he can't fire Sessions because if he fires him, the Senate has to confirm a new nominee and that's a tough battle. But if Sessions resigns -- I think I've got the law right here -- the Vacancies Act might allow Trump to replace him temporarily.

HARLOW: It does, for a short period of time.

LIZZA: Right? So he -- so Trump's whole game here is to push this guy out, force him to resign. Sessions obviously realizes that. And, you know, the important thing, you know, not to be too idealistic here, but the important thing for our democracy is I think that Sessions came out yesterday and stood up to Trump, and said, you know, my oath of office is essentially -- is more important here. And he's siding with the law and with the Justice Department and its independence against the president.

HARLOW: Yes.

LIZZA: Not an easy thing to do, but the right thing do.

HARLOW: All right. It is stunning to me. We've got to leave it there. But the -- you know, perhaps Democrats who railed against Jeff Sessions are hoping that he stays in his job right now.

LIZZA: Right? Liberal hero, Jeff Sessions.

HARLOW: It's quite a split. What a headline. Thank you, Rachael. Thank you, Ryan.

Let's turn now to David Pecker, the second longtime ally of the president this week to turn on him. Abby Phillip is back with us from the White House with more.

You know, we don't know what David Pecker knows. But a prosecutor thought what he had to say was worth enough to give him immunity.

PHILLIP: Exactly right, Poppy. Not only did the prosecutor believe that David Pecker had something of value to him.

[10:10:04] But we also know separately that David Pecker had this relationship with President Trump in which he helped the president, then Candidate Trump, squash some negative stories during the campaign, paying two women who accused -- who alleged that they had affairs with the president at a critical time during the campaign. So we know that there is information that Pecker knows about President Trump or knew at that time that the president sought to keep secret.

"The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that he is no cooperating, that he in exchange for not being prosecuted is cooperating with investigators as part of that broader probe involving Michael Cohen, involving these payments to these women.

This is the second really important development in that case, one that we know is one that the president worries about, because it's not just about the Mueller probe, it's not just about the president's businesses or about these women, it's also about his family and about a lot of private issues that the president had sought to keep under wraps.

So I think this is a major development that David Pecker is now someone that the president can no longer count on to keep his secrets and keep them under wraps -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Right. All right. Abby, thanks for all the reporting this morning at the White House. There may be even another legal headache for the president and the

Trump Org ahead. "The New York Times" is reporting this morning that the Manhattan district attorney's office may look into possible criminal charges against the Trump Organization.

Our reporter Kara Scannell is back with me with more details. So this is the Manhattan D.A. looking on the state level at the Trump Org. Why?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are looking, according to the "New York Times" citing two officials, they're looking into how they accounted for the reimbursement that was paid to Michael Cohen who had paid Stormy Daniels to keep quiet and not go public with her affair. So this would be an investigation looking into how the Trump Organization and two officials "The Times" have reported, of the Trump Organization, two executives there.

HARLOW: Right.

SCANNELL: Whether they properly accounted for this payment.

HARLOW: Allen Weisselberg is the name that comes to my mind who I believe has spoken to special counsel?

SCANNELL: Allen Weisselberg was subpoenaed by the Southern District of New York.

HARLOW: Southern District.

SCANNELL: As part of that investigation into Cohen.

HARLOW: I mean, he is someone that a lot of people are familiar with his name but has worked in Trump world forever, was hired by Trump's father, knows a lot. Do we have a sense if he is one of the officials here cited?

SCANNELL: So the "Times" story doesn't say that. But we did hear Allen Weisselberg's name in that tape that Michael Cohen had provided to CNN because he was referring to Weisselberg in talking -- telling Donald Trump that he was going to talk to Allen about setting up a company to pay off -- to AMI.

HARLOW: Karen McDougal.

SCANNELL: Exactly. So Allen Weisselberg is someone that Michael Cohen has at least put into the frame as someone who is in charge of that. And then at the time, we've had that tape, the Trump Organization attorney said that Allen Weisselberg was the bookkeeper, he's the person that handles the money.

HARLOW: OK. Thank you, Kara. Important reporting. Let us know what you hear as that develops.

Still to come for us, we break down all of the legal headlines. What does this actually all mean for the president? And a top Republican donor says the Cohen news this week was an earthquake. We're going to talk to him live.

And we take you to Yemen where once again children are caught in the middle of a deadly air strike. Who was behind it? We're on it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:17:53] HARLOW: A conviction, a guilty plea, an immunity deal all in a week. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

CNN contributor and law professor at the University of Texas Steve Vladeck joins me, and former federal prosecutor David Weinstein is also with us.

So, Steve, let's talk about the flip first. The latest one. And that would be David Pecker. Getting immunity from prosecutors to flip on the president and immunity is not an easy thing to get. Let's listen to what a man who worked with Pecker high up at AMI said to me last night when I asked him, you know, are you surprised that he would flip on the president? Listen.

We don't have it. All right. He said to me, "I'm stunned." But he also said to me, Steve, that essentially David Pecker puts himself and his business before everything else. What does it tell you that prosecutors were willing to give him immunity?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it tells you what the prosecutor's goal is here. And the goal seems clearly to be making sure they can build as strong a case as possible if not against the president himself, then at least against those around him, those in his network, his business enterprises, the Trump Organization. And that all other considerations, including the potential liability of Mr. Pecker himself, perhaps even AMI, really were secondary.

If I'm President Trump, that is an awfully ominous sign.

HARLOW: What's your read, David? Because, you know, in terms of the legal line that Pecker apparently, you know, thinks he needed immunity from, where is the legal line for a media company like AMI? Because, you know, the First Amendment gives you wide latitude, wide latitude for the press. But there is some line that apparently, you know, Pecker thinks maybe they crossed, that he would need to take an immunity deal.

DAVID WEINSTEIN, FORMER STATE AND FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, he went pretty far across that line because he got the golden card of all immunities. They gave him transactional immunity. It's tough enough to get simple use immunity out of a prosecutor but here he's gone all the way across the board and he's been given transactional immunity.

[10:20:01] That means immunity from prosecution in New York Federal District Court, potentially in Washington by the special prosecutor, and to some extent, if they are willing to buy in, the prosecutors in New York that are looking at this.

He had to try and balance this First Amendment privilege, but he didn't do a very good job because it wasn't just about him getting the news out. It was about him hiding the news and then conspiring with people to violate the campaign finance laws.

HARLOW: So -- but that's the key part, right, Steve? It's not about squashing a story. Right? I mean, it may be, like, ugly, dirty business, but it's legal. Right? It's about did you do it, was it an in kind donation to a campaign, right? Is that the question?

VLADECK: Exactly so. And I think the key to understand here is this is not a general abstract question about whether a newspaper, a media organization can get in trouble as a general matter for not running the story. It's in the specific context of a campaign cycle.

And Poppy, let's remember, pretty late in the campaign cycle where the media organization is quashing the story for the specific purpose of aiding one candidate over the other.

HARLOW: True.

VLADECK: That's exactly why federal campaign finance laws have something to say about it and why he needed, as David said, transactional immunity in order to testify.

HARLOW: David, to you. Jason Miller was on with me earlier this week. And he was an adviser, very high up adviser to the president's campaign. And he essentially -- this was on Monday night -- pinned it on Michael Cohen. And he was like, well, Michael Cohen -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- you know, he should have been advising the press when they had that, you know, conversation that Cohen taped about the payoff to AMI about this Stormy -- the Karen McDougal story.

Michael Cohen should have been the one -- you know, he was the lawyer, he was advising, it's on him. I mean, how are prosecutors going to see that? Are they going to look at the man running to be leader of the free world and say you have to know campaign finance laws, too?

WEINSTEIN: Well, I think it's implied in all of this. I mean, the president can try and step back and insulate himself and if I'm defending him I'm going to say I'm a busy man, I'm running for public office, and I'm letting the people around me advise me of what I should and shouldn't be doing. But it's certainly implied in the fact that you are running that you have at least a working knowledge of what this campaign finance law is.

And that's why these co-conspirators, whether unindicted, whether are in charged, around him are the people who are now circling back around and the government's able to prove their case against everybody who is involved.

HARLOW: The safe, Steve. The Associated Press is reporting that there was a literal safe at the tabloid, at the "National Enquirer," that held documents documenting these negative stories about Trump that were squashed. So I don't know if you are the investigators. You are looking for that safe right now or you have that safe right now.

VLADECK: I would think that if we're up to this point, Poppy, they have the safe. And, you know, I think the fiction writers really got carried away with this one that there's literally a safe with documents in them. But, you know, Poppy, let's step back. I mean --

HARLOW: Wait, you don't -- you don't buy it?

VLADECK: Yes. No, no, I'm sure I do. I just -- I'm saying, I think they surely have it by now. But, I mean, the president is not innate when it comes to campaign finance law. Let's remember that, you know, when John Edwards got in trouble for a very similar type of violation, the president tweeted about it. And so, you know, once again, I think his own Twitter account comes back to bite him because it shows that he absolutely has pretty sophisticated awareness of what the rules are here.

HARLOW: But, David, that's such a good point. And the president also said that the "National Enquirer," David, should have won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the Edwards story. But when it came down to legally, you know, prosecuting Edwards for that, he came out on top. And they're really apples to apples with the Cohen and Edwards situation, no?

WEINSTEIN: Yes, they are. You know, and again, the best advice I can always give a client is not to say anything. Your words will always come back to bite you, whatever they are. And this is a client who doesn't seem to listen to his lawyers when they give him that type of advice.

HARLOW: Thank you both. Steve, David, have a nice weekend.

WEINSTEIN: You do the same.

VLADECK: You too.

HARLOW: Still ahead, a story we have been following very closely here. And now a second deadly air strike in Yemen that has claimed the lives of 22 children. This just weeks after that school bus filled with children was bombed by those Saudi coalition forces. We will bring you the latest ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:49:08] HARLOW: Welcome back. Well, as you know on this show, we have been closely following the Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Yemen that continue to kill children. Overnight, there were more. According to the Houthi-controlled Health Ministry, 30 people were killed, 22 of them children. Children fleeing an earlier bombing.

This is the latest flashpoint in Yemen's ongoing civil war. Just earlier this month, another Saudi-led air strike hit a school bus carrying dozens of children, killing 51 people, 40 of them are kids.

And CNN has confirmed the bomb used in that attack was made by a top U.S. Defense contractor.

Nima Elbagir has been all over this and joins me now. Our senior international correspondent.

And Nima, when I woke up to the news this morning, I was appalled but not surprised. What are you hearing?

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, and sadly neither are the people on the ground. We managed to speak to a surviving family member. And he described just real heartbreak there. Not only were there air strikes in the village that they -- that this family were fleeing but the air strikes continued even as --