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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

NYT: Trump Tried to Buy, Bury Years Worth of Enquirer Stories; Trump to Bloomberg: Sessions' Job Safe Until At Least November Elections. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 30, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[16:30:00] BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "The New York Times" reporting that Donald Trump and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen once discussed a plan to buy all stories the "National Enquirer" had collected on Trump, going back to the 1980s. That discussion was strongly hinted at in a secret audio recording made by Cohen and released exclusively to CNN by his lawyers in July.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: It's all the stuff, all the stuff.

GINGRAS: On that tape, Trump and Cohen heard discussing setting up a payment system through American Media Inc., the "National Enquirer's" parent company.

COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David.

GINGRAS: David is David Pecker, the head of AMI. Pecker had a cozy relationship with Trump and to protect him, Pecker would dig up the dirt on Trump, often paying for the stories and then bury them in a practice called catch and kill. "The Associated Press" reports unsavory stories were kept in a safe at AMI. And according to "The New York Times", that safe contained decades of material on Trump like marital woes and lawsuits, lists of sensitive sources and tips about alleged affairs.

Cohen and Trump even discussed a backup plan just in case Pecker, the holder of the secrets, was no longer around.

COHEN: It's all the stuff because you never know when the company --

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: Correct.

GINGRAS: Trump and Cohen mention Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg in their plans to pay for the information.

COHEN: I have spoken to Allen about how to set the whole thing up with funding. GINGRAS: "The Times" reports that Trump never did by all of the

stories from AMI. But in his guilty plea last week, Cohen admitted to working to buy the silence of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, two women who alleged affairs with Trump. Cohen also said the payments were directed by then-candidate Donald Trump. Trump denies those affairs.

Both Pecker and Weisselberg helped the government with its case against Cohen in exchange for immunity. With the immunity deals, it's unclear what other secrets they now may be sharing with federal prosecutors.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: And it's also unclear if attorneys in the Southern District or the special counsel had any interest in this trove of other negative Trump stories that have not yet been reported. We should note that we reached out to AMI and they declined to comment -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Brynn Gingras, thanks very much.

Back to the panel now.

Bill, if I can, let's play this section of the tape where Cohen is secretly recorded Trump and this is the discussion about buying dirt. Have a listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

COHEN: It's all the stuff because you never know when the company --

TRUMP: He gets hit by a truck --

COHEN: Correct. So, I'm all over that.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: All over that, all that they have, this kind of thing, all the stuff, all the stuff, an apparent reference. So, we had these tapes. CNN broadcast you remember a couple of weeks ago.

But now, with the "New York Times" story it seems to explain what they were talking about there. I mean, that would seem to indicate that they were concerned about the kind of material in there.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Who has a better conversation with his fixer than buying up -- 30 years of some tabloid.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOL: What can you say? I think it gets to the fact that he has been doing this for a long time and misbehaving and covering it up and paying off people hush money, the whole complex there. I have always thought he was so upset about the Mueller investigation. He had a sense it wasn't foolish in a way, that once Mueller got going and turned over this rock God knows what you would find in terms of financial dealings, personal life, payoffs, things that maybe marginally legal, marginally illegally, you wouldn't get persecuted if you're just some businessman doing it. You know, now as far of an investigation with the president, it becomes a little more serious.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this is why the CFO of the Trump Organization getting immunity for the Cohen investigation attracted so much attention because this is someone who worked for Frank Trump, President Trump's father. He is in charge of that company's finances and presumably that is where a lot of the money was coming from, personal and the company's finances.

KRISTOL: And just one footnote to what I would say, and the fact that they continue to do this, it's one thing to have done it in the private organization, private company, that they continue to do it in 2016, in a middle of an election campaign, which raises a whole heck of a lot of different issues than if you are in 2009 and you don't want an embarrassing story to come out. Suddenly, it's part of an election --

SCIUTTO: That is the essence of what Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to is making payments for the express purpose of keeping them from coming out before the election which would indicate using money unduly to influence the election. If you are doing that for all the dirt that the "National Enquirer" collected back to the 1980s, would that not be in the same legal category?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, here is what makes the whole thing so perilous for Trump. He was a candidate who broke the rules and not playing by the rules means you get in trouble eventually. They put no fire walls between the Trump campaign, Trump Organization, the Trump charity or the family.

[16:35:08] Now, you have the "National Enquirer". Quite frankly, I don't know how the "National Enquirer" survives this, I don't know how any of the Trump Organization survives this because once you get in there, there are supposed to be fire walls between all entities. There are supposed to be certain ways you interact with media. This is all mingled together in one big mess. The fact that the CFO has immunity and David Pecker has immunity should tell you that they have something big to give up that could take it all down.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think what it gets to is with the CFO on the hook this business is largely built on some illegal behavior, money laundering, so on. What I continue to wonder is if some of what we are looking at now is almost a side show, the women, the covering it up, look, even the conversations with Russia. If there is anything I take away is it is Trump is in close contact with his people. There's no way he didn't know about the conversations with Russia.

But at the end of the day what he will protect over everything else is the money and the organization and the fortune of himself and his children. I continue to think that is ultimately what will take him down, all that's going to bubble up.

SCIUTTO: Can we under -- are we overestimating the importance of Allen Weisselberg, CFO of Trump Organization and Pecker going, I don't want to say going states evidence, but at least getting immunity? Can we exaggerate the importance of that? I mean, is that sort of standard procedure?

Does that indicate, Bill, that they have something to give? You get immunity because you might be exposed for committing crimes, right? Is there a there there potentially?

KRISTOL: Some lawyers when it was announced maybe they were just offering up evidence on Cohen and they wanted to wrap up the case tight they might have needed their testimony if Cohen hadn't ended up pleading. It seems to me that that whole special investigation is about where Michael Cohen though. And I suspect, anyway, once they give them immunity, they can ask him about anything. For me it does come back to 2016 and the Russia question.

I guess that -- when you see the pattern of how he ran with it and how everything was run, all the claims about collusion for me become more credible, the claims that Trump must have known, that they would not have walked away from doing something, that this meeting maybe on, whatever that was at Trump Tower, it wasn't -- you know, maybe predicate for further things. And then, WikiLeaks -- I come back always, you were there, you were running Hillary's campaign, I come back to October 7th, suddenly the tape comes out, "Access Hollywood" which was the most dangerous moment for Trump, one later, WikiLeaks dropped Podesta emails. We should think hard about that coincidence.

MOOK: Well, also, Roger Stone said he was in contact w contact with Assange before he said he wasn't. I mean, and he said, he also, you know, there was interaction with Twitter with Guccifer. So, you know, to me, that evidence is out there.

I think the other piece is with Russia potential collusion on the election and the finances could potentially be intertwined, right? So, the CFO is going to have knowledge about relationships with Russian oligarchs who were potentially a source of finance for the organization who might have also been part of whatever Russia was doing.

SCIUTTO: Listen, the heart of the kompromat question, right, was set aside the salacious tape allegation and more focused on the potential for financial exposure, a lot of the Russian money in the businesses and these are folks who know about it.

KUCINICH: Right, there's -- I mean, I go back to what -- I think Robby's right, that this is about protecting since everything was so intermingled, as Amanda said, I think this is about protecting the family business. And there is -- remember, Trump was asked in some interview whether this started getting into personal finances would that be a bridge too far. He said yes, I think that would cross the line. The line has been crossed.

Now, we have to see -- I think the midterm elections could either embolden or not this president. I think if he makes moves, it will likely be after the --

SCIUTTO: Or back him in the corner, right?

Final thought?

CARPENTER: On the question of kompromat, maybe it wasn't Russia. Maybe it was just the "National Enquirer" safe the whole time.

KUCINICH: The unit is safe. (INAUDIBLE) safe.

CARPENTER: Yes. That's a joke, but maybe not.

SCIUTTO: All right. Stick around. There is more to talk about.

The president has made his disdain for Jeff Sessions, as you know, well known. But a new report says the president resents Sessions for more than just his recusal from the Russia investigation including something as simple as how he talks.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:56] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

And this just in: President Trump has just commented on the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Bloomberg reporting that Sessions' job is safe at least until the midterm elections in November, about two months away. President Trump telling "Bloomberg", quote, I just would love to have him do a great job. But when the president was asked if he would keep Sessions beyond November, he declined to comment.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the sitting attorney general.

KUCINICH: Yes, if your boss is like I won't fire you for two months. But seriously, Jeff Sessions actually has executed a lot of President Trump's agenda. He actually has been doing, if you are looking at some of the things he cares, things like immigration, the judges, all of that, that has been getting done.

So the president, he will never forgive Jeff Sessions for someone called it the original sin of recusing himself from the Russia investigation. So, if that's -- if unrecusing himself is a way to do a great job, I don't think he's going to get that.

SCIUTTO: And the president has been made clear many times in public comments that when he says, I just would love him to do a good job means keep control of the Russia investigation. I mean the President's been very public about that motivation.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I mean what happens if he fires Sessions? He could try to nominate someone to replace sections. I'm not sure the Senate would confirm. The Senate would certainly insist on assurances I think even the Republican Senators, as (INAUDIBLE) as Amanda pointed out, would exist on assurances that he not interfere with Mueller. That's what happened after Watergate when Richardson quit. The next Attorney General had to ensure in the Senate the new investigation would go ahead. So maybe he'll try to -- but if he doesn't replace him, Rosenstein steps up. He's the Deputy Attorney General. He's already supervising Mueller and isn't responding to Trump's wishes.

I think the one plan they have is to the Vacancies Act. As I understand it, you can slide in someone else who has also been confirmed by the Senate in another position in the administration. That's easier to do if it's a retirement not if -- it's a originally designed building for like a death or something like that or emergency, but you can do it if it's a retirement not if you fire someone. Maybe he's still hoping he can persuade Sessions to retire and then slide some loyalists in but you would have a real constitutional crisis at that point. So I guess he's kicking the can down the road to November which is I guess good for the country, maybe but he's just putting off a constitutional crisis I think.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, he actually said something that made me think of the reason why Republican Senators had maybe turned on Jeff Sessions. If he leaves and they appoint someone else, it is probably easier to get a new nominee to make a pledge not to interfere with the Russian investigation or Mueller than pass legislation to protect Mueller honorably.

ROBBY MOOK, FORMER CAMPAIGN MANAGER, HILLARY FOR AMERICA: Yes, but I think -- I think the other danger here though is who's going to take this job and who's Trump going to trust. And so it feels to me like anybody he would put forward is going to be compromised somehow by this investigation. You potentially have a Democratic House of Representatives with subpoena power to investigate. It just feels -- from my mind, it's better for him to keep Sessions. Yes. I don't think -- I think this is going to get even worse for him.

SCIUTTO: I mean, you use the term constitutional crisis and that phrase has been uttered a number of times and warned about on a number of things. Would it -- in this environment though, would it really be received that way, right? Because arguably the President has shirked constitutional responsibility, certainly broken norms a number of times frankly without consequences.

KRISTOL: But I think the Mueller investigation has been -- I agree with that, but I think the Mueller investigation has been left alone pretty much. Rosenstein has been allowed to run the Justice Department to coordinate the Mueller investigation in the Southern District of New York in a pretty impressive way, actually. Much to Trump's frustration, for me that would be the bridge to -- interfering in that I think would be a whole different level of norm-breaking and --

MOOK: And it feels like at some point this is all going to the Supreme Court at some point, some way, somehow, and that will be very telling to see how that decision is made.

SCIUTTO: Yes, absolutely, no question. Politico detailed some of the ways in which the President has specifically complained about Sessions. I'm going to quote here. "If Sessions recusal was his original sin -- as Jackie was saying -- Trump has come to resent him for other reasons griping to aides and lawmakers that the Attorney General doesn't have the Ivy League pedigree the President prefers, that he can't stand a southern accent and that Sessions isn't a capable defender of the President on television in part because he talks like he has marbles in his mouth," the President has told aides.

You have in that list, there are a lot of things that are constant issues for this President, one loyalty. Let's frankly make that number one, but things like the Ivy League degree that the President likes to brag about, etcetera.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Though I think like if he hadn't recused himself he would have had an adorable accent. His college would have been it's not Ivy League but it's a good college.

SCIUTTO: Yes, he graduated number one in his class, whether or not he did, right.

KUCINICH: Totally. So I really do think he's -- he -- everything Sessions does annoys him and it began from the moment he recused himself and everything else is just a product of that.

CARPENTER: But you know what, none of it matters Trump picked him. Trump put him in that spot. That's what matter, good, bad, whatever, Trump put him there and now he's going to live with it.

MOOK: Well, and the other thing is normally if I were a House candidate running down south I'd be out saying can you believe the President said this, I oppose this, it won't change anybody's opinion. Even the people who those remarks offend, presumably will not be offended.

KRISTOL: If you think -- in so far as what are the issues in the next two months in the election 2018 is should we have a Congress that's something more of a check on the President than the current Republican Congress is. I think all this talk about Sessions, I do think hurts Trump a little. I do think voters -- you can be somewhat OK with some of Trump's policies but nervous that a reelected Republican Congress will just allow Trump to be even more untraveled, unchecked in his next two years. I don't think it's -- so I think it's a little bit of a help for Democrats here.

SCIUTTO: All right, listen, we've covered a lot. Thanks so much but we have a somber story coming up. The final trip to Washington D.C., John McCain's beloved state of Arizona saying a heartfelt goodbye to the Senator as the Nation's Capital prepares to honor the Maverick and the War Hero.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] SCIUTTO: Right now Senator John McCain making his final trip to Washington where his colleagues in the Senate and the House honored him one final time. He will be just the 31st American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, that's tomorrow, an honor only held for the country's most highly regarded and respected public officials including Presidents. CNN's Dana Bash, she joins me now, Danna, from Arizona. I know you've been in the midst of this for these last couple of days there, Arizona saying goodbye to a favorite adopted son.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Jim. And you know McCain sat on his porch overlooking the creek and the sycamore trees in the home near Sedona that he loves so much and helped plan, really did plan this send-off. And the ceremony that we saw today was as much about talking about McCain demand as sending a slew of messages about what he felt this country should and could be.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[16:55:24] BASH: Signs and flags planted on the motorcade route, an organic show of appreciation for the man who represented them for decades. But the man they call Senator, McCain's family calls husband and dad.

The emotion palpable.

BRIDGET MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: To everything, there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

BASH: Also lots of levity. John McCain's friends came with classic stories of a man with an unparalleled sense of humor.

TOMMY ESPINOZA, FRIEND OF JOHN MCCAIN: He said well -- he says with a big smile on his face, watch out when you start your car.

BASHl: Grant Woods talking about his first day as McCain's Chief of Staff back in the House.

GRANT WOODS, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF OF JOHN MCCAIN: All the staff came out and they were all waving at things, I said, well they seem to be very nice. He said, you're going to have to fire half of them. I said, what? What are you talking about? And he just sped off and the staff was waving and about one minute later we went right back by because he'd gone the wrong way of course.

BASH: The people he chose to speak showed the depth and diversity of his friendships.

LARRY FITZGERALD, NFL PLAYER: I'm black, he was white. I'm young he wasn't so young. He ran for president, I ran out of bounds.

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES: My name is Joe Biden. I'm a Democrat.

BASH: And of course reminders of his willingness always to reach across party lines to get things done.

BIDEN: We both went into our caucus and coincidentally we were approached by our caucus leaders with the same thing and raised as discussion. Joe, it doesn't look good you sit next to John all the time. I swear to God. The same thing was said to John in your caucus. That's when things began to change for the worse in America in the Senate.

BASH: Longtime Senate colleague former Vice President Joe Biden who lost his oldest son Beau to the same rare form of brain cancer that took McCain's life delivering a moving tribute to his friend of half a century.

BIDEN: I always thought of John as a brother. We had held a lot of family fights. All politics is personal. It's all about trust. I trusted John with my life.

BASH: Biden making this promise to McCain's family as they mourn.

BIDEN: But you're going to ride by that field or smell that fragrance, receive that flashing image. You're going to feel like you did the day you got the news but you know you're going to make it. I give you my word. I promise you this I know that they will come.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, after the ceremony, John McCain's family escorted him with the motorcade to the airport to get on a plane and go with him for the last time from Arizona to Washington. The family along with the Senator's remains are on that flight as we speak. And when they land Jim, we are told that -- and they're going to be at Joint Base Andrews, they're going to be greeted by nearly 100 members of his staff and former staff and you know this, you've covered Washington, and you know that it takes a certain kind of senator to have that kind of a loyal staff. And we kind of joked that McCain's staff is like the Hotel California, you can check in but you don't ever leave.

SCIUTTO: You would like that joke. Now, this is really only the beginning of events honoring him because you have -- you have the lying in state at the capital and you have a major funeral or ceremony rather here in Washington as well.

BASH: Right. As you mentioned, he's going to be lying in state in the U.S. Capital. It is a very, very rare honor to be able to do that, usually for presidents, former presidents, and of course members of the body, and the Senate was so important to John McCain. Sure he ran twice for a different office, didn't get it but he realized how incredibly important it could be and will be to use the Senate to help make policy in the country and around the world. And I'll just tell you that Mike Pence, the Vice President is going to be the highest- ranking member of the Trump Administration to attend the event and that would be tomorrow.

SCIUTTO: A special moment for the country. Dana Bash, thanks very much. Our coverage continues right now with Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."