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'National Enquirer' Kept Safe of Damaging Stories on Trump; Attorney General Fires Back after Trump Attacks; Sen. Graham: Trump Could Replace Sessions After Midterms; Rep. Duncan Hunter: My Wife Handled My Finances. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 06:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This was a magazine that, frankly, should be very respected.

[05:59:08] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cohen was the bigger fish here. They're willing to give Pecker immunity to sort of corroborate the tale.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: It's just not a good week. For us to pass it off, as Republicans, as you know, no big deal, it's just not right.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: After the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it would be a mistake. I don't think it would be good for the country.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: Many of us are frustrated that we never had an investigation of the other side.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CO-HOST: OK, good morning, everyone. Happy Friday to you. John Berman and everyone. And to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is NEW DAY. It's Friday, August 24, 6 a.m. here in New York. Here's our starting line.

It's been an extraordinary week.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You don't say?

CAMEROTA: It really has, in Donald Trump's presidency, and it's not over yet.

The Associated Press reports "The National Enquirer" kept a safe -- a literal safe -- of secrets that stored damaging stories and documents on those hush-money payments that led Michael Cohen to plead guilty this week. Now remember, Michael Cohen testified under oath that he, Donald Trump, and the tabloid were involved in buying the silence of women who say they had affairs with the public.

So this comes as we are seeing the president, the president's fortress of loyalty begin to publish somewhat. The publisher of "The National Enquirer," a long-time friend, has become the latest to turn on the president. "The Wall Street Journal" and "Vanity Fair" report that federal prosecutors have granted David Pecker immunity. Sources say that Pecker told prosecutors that the president knew about the hush- money payments and provided details about those.

BERMAN: So you're saying there's a safe?

CAMEROTA: Well, I'm saying there's a safe, and we need to find out what's in it, and also you yesterday, I think, coined the term "Pecker problem." Congratulations.

BERMAN: We did say that yesterday.

CAMEROTA: You called it. And the -- well, I was going to say the Pecker problem has only grown bigger, but I'm not going to say that.

BERMAN: It is a problem. It's a problem.

CAMEROTA: There's a Pecker problem.

BERMAN: We're just going to leave that there. Another stealthy development, more stealthy than Pecker problems, that could spell problems for the president. The Manhattan's D.A. office is considering criminal charges against the Trump Organization in connection with Michael Cohen's $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. "The New York Times" says prosecutors want to know how the company accounted for its reimbursement to Cohen. Now, these would be state crimes, so the president would have no pardon power here.

Also, what will the president and attorney general say about each other today? We can only imagine. Jeff Sessions finally responded to the president's relentless, demeaning assaults for not stopping the various investigation into Trump associates. The attorney general says he will not be, quote, "improperly influenced by political considerations." But for the first time, some Senate Republicans are saying maybe it's about time for Sessions to go.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip, live for us at the White House this morning -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John.

It has been a damning and damaging week for this White House, but the bombshells could still be coming. This is coming as the White House and as President Trump and the first lady are expected to make their first public appearances today after Michael Cohen, the president's former personal lawyer, implicated him in these hush-money payments to women alleging affairs with the president. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP (voice-over): The Associated Press reports that "The National Enquirer" kept a safe containing documents on hush-money payments and stories that the magazine bought rights to and killed to protect Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election.

The magazine's publisher, David Pecker, has been friends with President Trump for decades.

TRUMP: I've always said, why didn't "The National Enquirer" get the Pulitzer Prize?

PHILLIP: But the American Media CEO was reportedly granted immunity in exchange for cooperating in the investigation into Mr. Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. The details of Pecker's deal made public by the "Vanity Fair" and "The Wall Street Journal" just hours after the president vented his frustration about people, quote, "flipping."

TRUMP: Everything's wonderful, and then they get ten 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.

PHILLIP: According to Cohen's plea deal, Pecker helped deal with negative stories about Mr. Trump, referred to here as "individual one," by buying and burying them. Sources telling CNN that Pecker gave details about the payments Cohen made to women who alleged that they had affairs with Mr. Trump and that the president had knowledge of it.

After pleading guilty, Cohen testified in open court under oath that the president directed him to make the hush-money payments to influence the 2016 election.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The truth is, he lied about this. You guys should own it --

CONWAY: Lied about what?

CUOMO: -- and move forward.

CONWAY: I'm sorry. Lied about what? I'm not going to sit here and listen to that.

CUOMO: What Michael Cohen was done -- doing with these women and the payments. He lied about not knowing.

CONWAY: He knew about it after --

CUOMO: I know, and that's a lie.

CONWAY: -- the payments were made.

PHILLIP: The White House continues to insist the president only learned about the payments after they were made, but a secret audio recording released by Cohen proves otherwise.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER LAWYER 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. He actually came up and he spoke to me, and I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with the funding.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CAMEROTA: OK. Abby, stay with us, if you would, because we want to bring in other experts to help us analyze this. We have CNN senior political analyst and senior editor at "The Atlantic," Ron Brownstein; and CNN legal analyst Shan Wu, former lawyer for Rick Gates.

OK, Shan, I need you to help us understand this. When they have Michael Cohen already talking about the payment that they made to "The National Enquirer," when they have Stormy Daniels, when they have Karen McDougal, when they have documentation, when they have wire transfers, why do they need to grant immunity to David Pecker? What does that give federal prosecutors?

[06:05:16] SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think we have to remember, immunity is neither lightly conferred nor should be lightly accepted. So it's a fairly complex approval process. So the prosecutors have to vet it up the chain. And they would need to feel that there is a very high value to the testimony that Mr. Pecker might give them.

And so that could include, certainly, this safe of other secrets, but I think most importantly, what they want is more evidence of the president's intent. If there are conversations talking about the specific payments; there are specific plans to do it, prosecutors would be very eager for that.

BERMAN: And if you believe "The Wall Street Journal" reporting -- CNN's got reporting on this also -- apparently, David Pecker is saying -- is saying that the president knew about these payments. That is corroborating evidence that the president knew about these payments beforehand and shows that the president, and Kellyanne Conway with Chris last night, are lying. Period, full stop.

And Ron, there's a bigger aspect to this, which is David Pecker, Michael Cohen, Omarosa. Et tu, Brute. These are people close to the president who are now, to an extent, turning on him. Et tu, Pecker, one might say, Ron Brownstein. And that's a big deal.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. You know, look, first of all, all these stories have unfolded this week, my first thought each time has been what if the American people had known about these developments at the time they were occurring in the critical days right before the 2016 election. Would history be any different?

I mean, the consequences of this behavior and these actions, I don't think cannot -- can't be overstated in an election decided by 80,000 votes in three Midwestern states. Look, the fact, if it is correct that -- that Mr. Pecker is offering

corroborating evidence to Michael Cohen's charge, or his testimony that the president knew about these payments at the time they were occurring, you know, we are deeper into these uncharted waters. Because I think between that and the documentary evidence that the Justice Department alluded to in its -- you know, in its documents that were released in the Cohen plea, it seems pretty clear that, if this was anyone else than the sitting president of the United States, they would likely be facing an indictment at this point for violating the campaign finance laws.

And so the question of what we do next, and whether Congress is willing to do anything or whether there are legal options that could involve indictment but not prosecution while president, I think all of that becomes just much more relevant in the aftermath, if in fact, Mr. Pecker is willing to testify to what has been suggested in these reports over the last 24 hours.

CAMEROTA: Abby, look, all the reporting suggests that this has been unsettling inside the White House, as everyone can imagine. And that, you know, in just the past week, these three previous Donald Trump loyalists, between Michael Cohen, Omarosa, and David Pecker, have turned on the president. And this isn't how it worked at the Trump Organization.

You know, there's been lots of talk about how Donald Trump has been running the White House much like he did the Trump Organization, which was so successful for him for decades of his managerial style. But things, to this week, seem to be -- the wheels seem to be coming off the bus somewhat.

PHILLIP: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it seems almost like the peeling back of an onion. You have layers upon layers of things that are being unveiled to the American public, but also, we shouldn't underestimate the degree to which there is some surprise, a lot of surprise among people who work for the president now about what was going on behind the scenes, about the potential damage that all of these successive stories can have.

It does remind me. You know, I covered Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. It reminds me of those last, you know, 30 or 45 days in which the argument that the Trump campaign was making about Hillary Clinton was about a culture of corruption.

I think there is -- there is a potential here for Republicans and for this White House that maybe not all of these individual things will penetrate to the public, but that it will create a sense of a culture of problems, a culture of corruption around this president that could come back to hurt them, either this fall or later down the road.

I think there are -- there are two different kinds of worries here. One is the concrete worries about legal problems for the president. The other is the more broader problems about what is in the ether here about this White House that could potentially damage them in a way that they actually used against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

BERMAN: Ron, quickly, you want to step in?

BROWNSTEIN: Real quick, I mean, you know, the last three times a president has gone into a midterm election with unified control of government, as Republicans have now, voters have revoked it. And one of the reasons that has happened in '94, '06 and 2010, as Abby noted, particularly in the first two cases, is because there was a sense there was no accountability. There were no constraints. No one was really performing oversight and allowing -- and thus, a culture of corruption was allowed to fester, and that is the political risk most immediately from all of these different stories, including what's been unfolding in Congress.

[06:10:16] BERMAN: I don't want to lose sight of the safe. If we can go back to the safe for one moment here.

CAMEROTA: Let's do that.

BERMAN: Because it's almost cliche at this point. It is almost cliche that there was a safe inside "The National Enquirer" where the A.P. says that David Pecker and associates kept secrets, the secrets they knew about Donald Trump.

I can tell you, if you wrote it in this book, "Amanda Wakes Up," now available in paperback as a book --

CAMEROTA: God, you're a fantastic co-host.

BERMAN: -- out in September, my point is, your editor would have said, "You can't do that. That's too --"

CAMEROTA: "Too over the top."

BERMAN: "It's too over the top."

CAMEROTA: "Pump the brakes."

BERMAN: "No one will believe there's a safe in this political and journalistic thriller," Shan. But that's a big deal, that there was a safe where "The Enquirer" was keeping things. It's a big deal for them, and it's a big deal for this investigation.

WU: It absolutely is. And I'm certainly curious if that safe is still around and in place and where the contents went.

It's also quite just remarkable that there is a safe of dirty material on the president of the United States. I mean, that's -- all by itself, that's just an enormous security risk when you think about that.

And, you know, to Abby's point, the sort of culture of corruption, there's an unprecedented -- unprecedented number of people getting immunity, getting cooperation deals, not to mention the guilty pleas. That just really adds up to just this enormous taint that is settling into the administration.

BERMAN: Shan, why do you think that is? I mean, why do you think these people are getting immunity, especially in the case of Michael Cohen. The president, they're going to follow those Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president can't be indicted. Why give immunity to David Pecker for just that one count, if you have Cohen on all this other stuff?

WU: Well, it's certainly a question of value, but it's also going to be the part of lawyers representing them. I mean, they are saying, "We have some things really valuable. We're telling you what it is in a proffer session. But our client is not going to come forward unless you give him some kind of deal." So that's, in part, good lawyering on the part of the defense counsel.

CAMEROTA: So Ron, there -- there's yet another tentacle, legal tentacle now sprouting. And so this is from "The New York Times," and they say that the Manhattan district attorney's office is now considering criminal charges against the Trump Organization to see if it was run as some sort of criminal enterprise, basically. And these are state charges. OK? And so this is interesting, because that's outside of the purview of a presidential pardon.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

CAMEROTA: And who knows who would be charged at the Trump Organization?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. And certainly having to do with the payments that were made to Michael Cohen to reimburse him for his role in these -- in these kind of hush-money pay-offs.

Look, I mean, what you've got is, you know, they talk about in space missions, some kind of multiple redundancy here. You know, now, you not only have the special -- the special counsel who is investigating, you know, the Russia collusion. But you now have the Southern District of New York. You have the state of New York. There -- not to mention the civil cases, you know, that have been brought from -- on sexual harassment charges and defamation charges. And you have multiple legal challenges, and it's pretty clear that there is no way to slice the Gordian knot and make this all go away. That the president's going to be facing these kind -- one or another of these allegations and these proceedings, certainly, all the way through 2020.

BERMAN: All right, friends. Stick around. We have a lot more to discuss. There's this battle between the president, which has now been joined by the attorney general. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is fighting back after this latest barrage of insults from the president. But perhaps the most interesting thing is the Republican Senate, now beginning to weigh in here. Stay with us.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[06:17:16] TRUMP: I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions. Never took control of the Justice Department, and it's sort of an incredible thing. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Those words led to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to fight back, really, for the first time in this way. He responded with this statement released by the attorney general's office that says, quote, "I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in. While I'm attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action."

That's sort of the Jeff Sessions equivalent of saying, "I'm made as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

CAMEROTA: This is not what Jeff Sessions was imagining when he was the first person to come out and support candidate Donald Trump. He was not imagining having to issue a statement like that to defend himself.

BERMAN: No. I think that's probably true. I also think that Michael Cohen wasn't imagining this when he signed up to be the president's lawyer. Or Paul Manafort wasn't imagining this when he signed up to be the president's campaign chair.

CAMEROTA: Omarosa was imagining this.

BERMAN: Omarosa had this whole thing charted out.

CAMEROTA: This is all planned.

BERMAN: We're back now with Abby Phillip, Ron Brownstein and Shan Wu.

Abby, first to you. Again, the back and forth -- really has just been a forth. It's just been the president attacking Jeff Sessions for more than a year now. We're now seeing Jeff Sessions come out of his shell, a tiny little bit. He crossed a line here, the president did, in Jeff Sessions's mind, where he said, "You didn't take control of the Justice Department."

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, I think it is, really. I mean, we should focus on that for just one second. The president just said that he believes that, when he took office, he put in senior leaders in the Justice Department, not just Jeff Sessions but leaders underneath him. But they still haven't taken control of his own Justice Department. That's really extraordinary.

And I think that's why Jeff Sessions felt like he had to step in, because the president was essentially implying that there was still some kind of Democratic conspiracy against him in his own Justice Department.

And Jeff Sessions is both working for the president of the United States, but he's also the leader of a sprawling organization of law enforcement officers who need to respect the person holding that office. And I think he felt not only that he needed to defend himself but also defend the organization from attacks against the president. And also, you know, I mean, I think frankly, here we are, you know,

more than 18 months into the Trump presidency. What else is Jeff Sessions going to do?

I think that he, at some point, realized that, you know, the president is either going to fire him or he's not, and it seems that almost nothing that he says or does is going to change the president's mind about underlying problems that he has.

The president's now getting some, you know, some really important clearance from Congress, where they're saying, "We might be willing to take this up but only after the election." I think that will make a huge difference in this whole thing.

CAMEROTA: Ron, I keep coming back to the chronology here. Jeff Sessions was not a fortune teller, that he was named in -- he was picked by Donald Trump in January. He was confirmed in February. The Russian investigation came to light in March, and Jeff Sessions recused. So the idea that --

[06:20:15] BROWNSTEIN: Based on misleading statements to the Senate, don't forget. I mean, that's what started it all.

CAMEROTA: OK. Thank you for adding that. But the point is, is that Donald Trump either thinks that Jeff Sessions knew all this was going to happen, and I don't know. Maybe somehow he knew in December. But he wants Jeff Sessions to have known in January how this would unfold by March.

BROWNSTEIN: There are so many things about this -- about the president's statement yesterday that are kind of, like, off the wall. I mean, first, there was no -- there was no elected official in the Republican Party who is ideologically closer to where Donald Trump wanted to take the party before his nomination than Jeff Sessions, as evidenced by the fact that it is his aide, Steven Miller, who is kind of like the -- you know, the ideological keeper of the flame on the -- on immigration and other issues, racially-inflected issues in the White House.

Second, there is no cabinet member who has pursued a more aggressively conservative agenda. The idea that he hasn't taken control of the Justice Department; he has moved it significantly to the right on every possible policy area within its purview, particularly having to do with criminal justice reform where he just apparently, you know, beat back Jared Kushner's attempt to support even kind of modest criminal justice reform and oversight of police. Pretty much the whole panoply.

The only question, really, here that the president is alluding to is the idea that Sessions has not, quote, "protected" him enough from an inquiry into the Russian investigation, which goes to his view of not only the attorney general but, I think, the entire government as, essentially, an extension of, you know -- of the kind of relationships he had at the Trump Organization, and kind of denies any independent role for any of them in upholding the law and safeguarding the Constitution. BERMAN: A couple points I want to make here. No. 1, the president of

the United States is enjoying his executive time this morning. I don't know if he's watching us, but he is engaged now in this debate. He's going after Jeff Sessions once again on Twitter. That's one thing he's saying. He thanks Jeff Sessions for saying he won't be improperly influenced by political considerations, and he basically says, "Go investigate Democrats," which is all the president wants to see the attorney general do.

Shan, the other interesting thing that's happened to this is that you are now starting to see Republican senators who apparently are sick of defending Jeff Sessions. Or they've just grown weary of it. Lindsey Graham, who's been, frankly, on many different sides of the Donald Trump saga for the last three years, now says maybe Jeff Sessions should go. Listen to what Lindsey Graham says.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM: Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president. After the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That's Lindsey Graham. Shan, you actually suggest, Shan, that one of the things that the attorney general should do is demand an apology, force the president's hand here.

WU: Absolutely. I mean, the president's emphasis on his personal loyalty is misplaced. I mean, Jeff Sessions, as well as the president, swore an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, not to each other. And Sessions, if he has any hope of being an effective attorney general, needs to really stand up and say, "Look, you know, if you don't have confidence in me, fire me, but you owe me and the Justice Department an apology."

CAMEROTA: Abby, we need to move on to Congressman Duncan Hunter. He is accused of mismanaging his campaign funds, using them improperly. Here's a list of some of the things that -- expenses where he used the funds improperly, allegedly. Family vacations: went to Italy for $14,000, Hawaii for $6,500, Las Vegas; airplane ride for the family pet; bachelor party drinks, $350; "Riverdance" tickets; Steelers tickets for family members; Costco. Using campaign funds for your groceries to the tune of $11,000.

So last night he was on FOX, and he explained, really, whose fault this all is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: The first time I gave her power of attorney, and she handled my finances through my entire military career, and that continued on when I got into Congress. I'm gone five days a week; I'm home for two. So -- and she was also the campaign manager. So whatever she did, that will be -- that will be looked at, too, I'm sure. But -- but I didn't do it. I didn't spend any money illegally. I didn't -- I did not use campaign money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Abby, who was that rogue? Who is that rogue campaign manager? It's his wife. That's who he just threw under the bus there.

PHILLIP: That is really amazing. I mean, it also is interesting, because some of the details of these alleged actions that he took were involving him having allegedly affairs with other women, and they also involve him having conversations with his wife that -- that federal investigators know about. So it's amazing that this is the excuse.

[06:25:00] But it also, I mean, to your point, it brings up this question of why is everyone seemingly involved in all kinds of alleged grift, and it's a family affair. It's not just the person; it's their wife. You know, with Ben Carson it was the same thing. He blamed his wife for --

CAMEROTA: Wives are really acting badly here. Wives are going rogue.

PHILLIP: Maybe they are, but maybe they're not. I mean, I think it's also that people need to take responsibility for their actions. He's an elected official. He was elected by the people to be a steward of his office, a steward of the taxpayer dollars. His wife was not elected; he was elected. I think that's really the issue here. It doesn't even matter, really, who he thinks was responsible. He is the ultimate person holding the office.

CAMEROTA: Abby is blowing my mind.

BERMAN: Abby trying to gracefully handle your snark right there.

CAMEROTA: Well, I'm just curious that his wife paid $350 for bachelor party drinks. Wow, she's really mismanaging this money.

BERMAN: Yes.

CAMEROTA: Abby, thank you for bringing up personal responsibility. Thank you.

Ron Brownstein, Shan Wu, thank you all.

OK, moving on. The pope is heading to Ireland to meet with survivors of priest sexual abuse. What will he say there? What will he do? We have a live report, next.

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