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Source: Accused Russian Spy Maria Butina Cooperating with Feds as Part of Plea Deal; Interview with Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida; Source: President Trump Has Expressed About Impeachment to Advisers. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:20] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

We begin tonight with breaking news. Another plea deal and this time it's a Russian. Accused Russian spy Maria Butina is now cooperating with federal prosecutors after agreeing to a plea deal, according to a source familiar with the matter. Now, this is separate from the Robert Mueller investigation, but the news comes on a day when there are new and looming questions hanging over the presidency after Friday night's court filings from Mueller and the southern district of New York.

From court filings, public statements, and reporting from CNN and other news outlets, we now know that at least 16 associates of candidate Trump had contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition. The president and his associates repeatedly denied any contacts with Russians during the campaign, of course, and transition.

For more now on the how the new plea deal with the accused Russian spy Maria Butina may fit into what is now becoming a very intricate puzzle, we go to Sara Murray in Washington.

So, what do we know, first of all, about this plea deal?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, it's not final. I mean, they had the outline of a plea deal agreement, but nothing is done until they show up in court on Wednesday, enter this plea, and the judge accepts it.

But the cooperation here is very interesting. I mean, Maria Butina is someone that prosecutors say was working here in the United States, she was infiltrating GOP political circles, ingratiating herself with the national rifle association and she was doing all of that to try to advance Russians interests. So, they're going to be interested in her contacts with her Russian handlers.

One of those Aleksandr Torshin who was a banker in Moscow. He steps down from that position. They're going to want to know more about that.

They also want to know about her relationship with another American. This is a man named Paul Erickson, a man she has said was her boyfriend. And they want to know his role was in her sort of plot here in Washington, as well as whether he may have committed fraud in South Dakota. He's under investigation there too, Anderson.

COOPER: So, just to be clear, I mean, this is the same woman who asked a question of then-candidate Trump during the campaign, which I want to play for our viewers.


MARIA BUTINA, ACCUSED RUSSIAN SPY: I'm visiting from Russia, so my question --

DONALD TRUMP (R), THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ah, Putin, good friend of Obama, Putin. He likes Obama a lot.

Go ahead.

BUTINA: My question -- if you would be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country, and do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging both economies, or do you have any other ideas?

TRUMP: OK. Obama gets along with nobody. The whole world hates us. I know Putin, and I'll tell you what, we get along with Putin. I believe I would get along nicely with Putin, OK?


COOPER: Do we know this, he didn't know Putin. I mean, he never met Putin.

Anyway, do we know the significance of that question and how candidate Trump just happened to pick her of all the people out of the crowd? Was that just a coincidence?

MURRAY: We don't have any indication it was anything other than coincidence that he happened to call on this woman who is now being accused of being a Russian spy. But it is obviously a very bizarre circumstance and it was so early in the presidential campaign for then-candidate Trump to be weighing in on issues with Russia and it gives us an early look into how Donald Trump wanted to have a friendlier relationship with Putin, a friendlier relationship with Moscow and obviously we've seen that narrative last for years now, Anderson.

COOPER: I know Putin.

Sara Murray, thanks very much.

This news is breaking the middle of what seems to be an increasingly perilous time for the president. You can judge by two tweets today, a duo of phonetic missives filled with misdirection and inaccuracies.

And I'm quoting here: Democrats can't find a smocking gun tying the Trump campaign with Russia after James Comey's testimony. No smocking gun, no collusion at Fox News that's because there was no collusion. So, now, the Dems go a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not. Even if it was, it's only a civil case like Obama's, but it was done

correctly by a lawyer, and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer's liability if he made a mistake, not me. Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. Witch-hunt.

To keep them honest, it's the Dems. It's the Southern District of New York. It's not a simple private transaction as President Trump said right there, it's multiple alleged felony hush payments -- one to a former Playboy Playmate, the other to a porn star -- which was the president and the people around him have repeatedly lied about over and over again.

Once again, we don't know about collusion, but some may be tempted to say where there's smock, there's fire. It's an old saying.

Joining us now is CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

So, Jim, what are you learning about where the president's head is right now about these smocking payments?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's pretty smocky over here at the White House tonight. I did talk to a source close to the president who said earlier this evening that the president has expressed concern that he could be impeached over some of these issues that you just talked about.

[20:05:09] He has said it's a, quote, real possibility according to the source. But at this point he doesn't see it as being certain. You saw in that tweet where he refers to these payments as being a transaction. That obviously is simplifying things a great deal because Michael Cohen has said he believes and he has said that he was directed to make those payments by the president.

Now, where things go from here, I talked to other sources close to the White House, one source says they do believe there are advisers inside the White House that the one item that could stick with this president are these alleged campaign finance violations. These campaign financial crimes that have been alleged in the Michael Cohen case. But at this point they don't believe inside the White House that it's going to be enough to get a conviction in the Senate and a removal from office vote in the Senate. Might be enough in a Democratic House, but they don't think it will trigger the bipartisan support for impeachment in the House that could trigger very serious action over in the Senate for the president, Anderson.

COOPER: He's also obviously continuing to say no collusion whatsoever.

ACOSTA: That's right. And just a very important caveat in all of this, when we talk to sources over here who say the president is concerned about impeachment, they are basing all these comments on what they think they know right now. So, some of this is wishful thinking. And so, when the president goes out and repeats these talking points, no collusion and so on, that is based on essentially redacted documents coming from the special counsel's office, some of which we saw on Friday night. And so, at this point I think a lot of this goes back to what Donald

Rumsfeld used to say back during the Bush administration, there are no knowns and no unknowns, and at this point, I think even people inside the White House recognize they just don't know what Robert Mueller is going to do and they can base what they think going to happen at this point on what they understand to be the case. But, obviously, Robert Mueller is not really finished with his investigation at this point. But, Anderson, it is important to know I did talk to a source who has said, he has expressed to advisers that he does think impeachment is, quote, a real possibility. He just doesn't know if it's certain at this point.

COOPER: Is that a drum like a protester drum somewhere in the distance I'm hearing?

ACOSTA: It is. There is music being played out on Pennsylvania Avenue. Don't see any smock or smoke as some might call it over here. But --

COOPER: I just want to make sure the drum isn't being played in the White House itself.

ACOSTA: No, there is a steady drum beat in Washington, but tonight, it's just protesters.

COOPER: All right. Jim Acosta, thank very much.

The question now, of course, is what Democrats in Congress do with these allegations. Democrat Jerry Nadler of the Judiciary Committee was asked if it's proven the president colluded with Michael Cohen to commit these felonies, would they be impeachable offenses.


REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMTITEE: They would be impeachable offenses whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question, but certainly they would be impeachable offices because even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office. That would be an impeachable offense.


COOPER: With me now is Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida, member of the Judiciary, Ethics and Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for being with us. Are these in your opinion impeachable offenses? And if so, are they enough to justify an impeachment?

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Thanks for having me, Anderson. Look, here's what we've learned over the past few days. We have learned that there is now evidence that the president of the United States engaged in a felony to obtain the office of president, that there's further -- that's in the payments to these women, accusers. Then there's further evidence now of the use of his corporations to pay them off, thus the cover-up.

So, when you look at those two things, you realize why the president is facing such pressure now and why the president is at risk of both political jeopardy -- he's in political jeopardy and in criminal jeopardy. These are felonies that we're talking about.

As it relates to impeachment, Anderson, the Constitution could not be any clearer. Impeachment is the appropriate remedy for bribery, treason, high crimes and misdemeanors. It speaks for itself. We only know a fraction of what Robert Mueller knows.

I think we have to wait, look at what Robert Mueller delivers to us, the American people will review it, but there's every reason for the president to be very concerned about what continues to come out of this investigation as it relates to him, his legal jeopardy, and the potential for things to only get worse for him as this goes forward.

[20:10:02] COOPER: What is the difference, though, between an impeachable offense and one that justifies an impeachment? I mean, are there crimes a president can commit that should be overlooked?

DEUTCH: No, of course not. No one is above the law, and that's -- I think that point is particularly important when you look at those tweets that the president put out today. Those simple private transactions that he referred to, the criminal code is full of simple private transactions, and if you're guilty of one of them, in this case, a felony that may have been committed in order for him to become president, then he has to be held accountable.

The whole process of impeachment is a political decision, which is why we have to wait, I believe, until the Mueller report comes out. So we know from a fraction of what we've seen how concerning this is, and the potential violence of laws that would lead us to move forward, but we have not yet seen the totality which there's every reason to believe when you look at the potential obstruction of justice that we've already seen, the dangling of pardon for Manafort, the potential obstruction by firing Comey. There's so much more that we have yet to see that I think is going to provide the blueprint for what Congress does next.

COOPER: I want to play something that your colleague Congressman Adam Schiff said over the weekend for our viewers.



REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: My takeaway is there's a real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him, that he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.


COOPER: I wonder what you make of that. Does it behoove Democrats at all at this point to be talking about possible prison time for somebody once they leave office?

DEUTCH: Well, I actually -- I don't think it's unreasonable to make clear what the president himself has said, what Democrats and Republicans alike say over and over, and to make sure it has meaning, that no one is above the law. If the president engaged in felonies, if he committed felonies in order to win the White House, further if he committed felonies to cover up those crimes in order to win the White House, then those felonies, if it turns out that that's what happened, of course the president has to be held accountable. That's what Adam Schiff was saying.

And certainly, it's consistent with what everyone believes about the way this country should work. No one is above the law.

COOPER: A lot of House Democrats have been talking about their committees investigating various aspects of the president, the president, once they're in the majority. Where is the line between holding a president accountable and going on to use one of the president's favorite phrases, a witch-hunt that might actually backfire on Democrats?

DEUTCH: Well, Congress has a responsibility to provide oversight, Anderson. That's our job. Unfortunately, for the past two years the Republican leadership on the Judiciary Committee has instead seen its job as defending the president every crazy tweet, every lie he's told. There's been a refusal to actually provide the necessary oversight that the Constitution requires us to provide. So it's not -- we shouldn't be guided by how the president characterizes anything in tweets.

We ought to be guided by the facts, by the indictments, by the lies that we've seen by this president about his connections to Russia, which we now know gets deeper and deeper. That's got to guide us and what we do on behalf of the American people, not what the president chooses to tweet out in a moment of real concern about himself and his future.

COOPER: Yes. Congressman Ted Deutch, appreciate your time, thank you.

DEUTCH: Thanks, Anderson.

COOPER: A lot more to talk about. Joining me are Jeffrey Toobin, Carrie Cordero, Steve Cortes and Robby Mook.

Jeff, I want to start with the breaking news tonight that Russia -- the person being accused of being a Russia spy, Maria Butina, is cooperating with federal prosecutors. At least there's a deal on the table.

How significant is that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it depends what she knows and who she had contact with. Obviously, it is significant, yet another person in the Trump orbit, in particular, someone who was very closely associated with the National Rifle Association, she is pleading guilty to a serious crime. It's not espionage, but it's failing to register as a foreign agent.

And she was in touch with all sorts of people, including asking that very significant question at that press conference in 2015 of the president. Did she have contact with the Trump campaign? What did they know? Who paid her? Where did that money go? All of that presumably now federal prosecutors will learn because she has agreed to cooperate.

COOPER: And, Jeff, turning to the president's tweets about his payments to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, he calls them simple private transactions. So, are those the words you would use to describe --

TOOBIN: I would not use that. I mean, remember the timing of these private transactions.

[20:15:02] They were like within weeks of Election Day. I think we all can imagine how politically explosive it would have been if either or both of these women had come forward. So this was campaign money. This was money going to elect Donald Trump. That's why Michael Cohen had to plead guilty to a crime because they didn't treat it in the way campaign contributions are supposed to be treated.

You know, whether Donald Trump, as Congressman Schiff suggested, will have to go to prison because of this is, you know, I think a little -- it's a bit premature. But to say they are simple contracts between two people is far, far from the truth.

COOPER: Steve, do you believe these were simple private transactions?

STEVE CORTES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I agree with Jeffrey. I have to push back on that point because I think had these been revealed, and we don't know of course, it's a hypothetical.

But let's say it had been revealed. Let's say it was revealed that McDougal, a Playboy centerfold, said that a decade before, she had an affair, an extramarital affair with then candidate Trump, do you really believe that would have swayed the election in favor of Hillary Clinton? I mean, none of us on team Trump or the 63 million who voted for him thought they were voting for Francis of Assisi. So, I just don't believe that would have been material to the campaign.

TOOBIN: So, why didn't they report it? Why didn't they make it public the way they should have under the law?

CORTES: Because it was not a campaign contribution. No, because it's not a campaign contribution. And the FEC is very clear on this. The law is clear on this.

If it can reasonably be made -- that the expenditure can be reasonably be made, irrespective of the campaign, and that is certainly true of these transactions. There's a lot of reasons why you would want these women to keep these stories private, even if they're not telling the truth, by the way, you might still have them to keep these stories confidential. There are many, many reasons outside of politics why you would do that, and the FEC is clear that that means it's not a campaign contribution.

TOOBIN: So, as you point out, this was an affair with several years earlier, so it's just an incredible coincidence that the money happened to change hands just on the eve of the election?

CORTES: No. Listen, that's a good point, but that part is not coincidental because the reason this women, the reason there was an impetus for them to come forward, of course, was the fact that Donald Trump was achieving fame even though he was already a famous person. He was achieving fame and notoriety like he had never seen once he became the Republican nominee.

So that encouraged them to come out, but that doesn't mean that again, on the side of Trump, it doesn't mean that there weren't several reasons why, personal life, business life, politics, you would want this to stay confidential and that doesn't make it a campaign contribution. It's legal, it's allowed.

COOPER: Carrie, how do you see this?

CARRIE CORDERO, SENIOR FELLOW, CNETER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: So, I actually think, Anderson, that the campaign finance part of it and the payments to the women is somewhat of a distraction from the big issue with the coordination with Russian government and Russian government surrogates. If we take the big special counsel investigation, I understand that the Southern District of New York has a responsibility to enforce the law, and they obviously believe that they have a reasonable likelihood of succeeding on the merits of a campaign finance case. And so, I think it's possible that the president has potential criminal exposure for it perhaps when he leaves office at some point in the future.

But from the documents that were filed on Friday, I think the more important parts from the national security's perspective and from a future potential impeachment proceeding perspective, is the fact that Michael Cohen coordinated his statements, his lying statements to Congress and to the special counsel's office with others, and Paul Manafort was apparently either in touch or trying to be in touch with the Trump administration up until early 2018. And so, what we're learning is that there were so many different contacts between the campaign and Russian government officials and Russian surrogates and importantly, Trump campaign officials in those now in the administration have been trying to cover it up.

And so, the question becomes why were they trying to hide the Moscow project? Why have they been lying to Congress? Why have they actually coordinated their lying statements? And so, from the perspective of potential jeopardy for the presidency, I think it's all the obstruction of justice and potentially what's revealed about whether or not they actually coordinated with Russian efforts to affect the election.

COOPER: Yes, I got to get a quick break, but I'll come to Robby Mook as soon as we come back, because we haven't heard from Robby yet. We will also have more on what the president is said to be thinking about the possibility of impeachment. Also ahead, why the president is said to be, and I'm quoting here,

super pissed. That's a quote from a source familiar with his mood and another one said he's humiliated and this is not directly related to the Russia investigation or the hush money payments for his alleged affairs. Details ahead.


[20:24:05] COOPER: The president of the United States sees it as a real possibility that he could be impeached after Democrats take control of the House. That's the word tonight from a source close to him. A source also saying the president isn't certain it will happen but he's expressed concern.

Back with Jeff Toobin, Carrie Cordero, Steve Cortes and Robby Mook.

Robby, I mean, at the same time we're hearing the president thinks there's a possibility he could be impeached, there's also reporting the White House is adopting a shrug shoulder strategy for the Mueller findings. They believe that most of the GOP-based voters will believe whoever the president tells them to believe. Do you think they're right?

ROBBY MOOK, FORMER CLINTON CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I worried they're right to be honest with you. I want to pick up on a point that Carrie made just before the break, that if we focus on all these details, sometimes we lose the bigger picture.

I think that the scope of what's going on here, both the degree to which the Trump campaign was committing crimes, the degree to which the president himself was part of those crimes but also the degree to which the Russians were infiltrating the Trump campaign, the NRA, other Republican groups, I think that's going to continue to expand. And if we get bogged down in all the individual constituent pieces, we're going to lose sight here that we had a major national security incident.

These influences may still be embedded in our political fabric here in our country, and that should be really disturbing to anybody. So I think everybody needs to wake up, pull back, look at the big picture, and then obviously we need to wait and see what sort of details are in Mueller's report and we need to track these other indictments and investigations that are going on through the U.S. attorney's office.

COOPER: Steve, to that point, does it raise any concerns with you that I think by CNN's count now 16 people in Trump world had contacts with Russians? Either during the campaign or transition?

CORTES: Right. My answer is yes and no. Do we need more light shined upon that, I believe we do. Yes, there's some worry there. Some of it is not worrisome at all for instance it was during the transition when it's normal to have conversations with foreign powers once you're elected.

But, look, I think we need to learn more, and I would say to those of us who support the president, we can't be complacent, clearly. It's not time to have an exoneration party. But I would also caution those who can't stand the president, including a lot of people in Congress, people like Congressman Schiff, who are ready to put him in a jail suit and put him a cell, I would caution them that we haven't seen anything even close to criminality.

But look, I do think to your opening point, I think at this point impeachment is a given. I really believe -- I believe that before the election if the Democrats took control, now they've taken control. I think that's a fait accompli. It is happening.

I think the White House and those of us who support the Trump agenda, we need to start to prepare for the legal and communication strategy to take on impeachment and to eventually, I think, turn it into a positive once we get to the senate. So, that is the reality. I'm not sure the White House gets that yet.

TOOBIN: That is absolutely absurd to say that impeachment is a certainty. The Democrats and I've spoken to a lot of the people involved here, they know that in 1998, the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton knowing full well he would never get removed from office. There were never going to be 67 votes in the Senate, and the Democrats have vowed not to repeat that mistake.

They're not going to repeat that mistake. There is no support for going forward with impeachment among the leadership of the House Democrats with -- under current circumstances. So the idea that impeachment is a certainty is just absurd. It's just like trying to gin up the Republican base.

MOOK: And to build on what Jeffrey is saying --

CORTES: I don't disagree on your logic, by the way, but that would presuppose that the Democrats are going to vote based on logic and based on the law. Impeachment is a political proceeding and because it is a political proceeding, and because their entire agenda, they don't have an agenda outside of resistance to this president, and because they are defined by resistance, they will vote for impeachment.

I agree with you ultimately it will backfire on them, but they're heading there. To me, it's a certainty. They're heading there.

COOPER: Robby?

MOOK: If I can just level set here, the job of members of Congress, what they are paid to do in part is oversight of the executive branch. The Republicans for almost two years now have completely abdicated that responsibility. They have not done their job. They've cheated the taxpayers by not doing their job.

Democrats are going to be committed to doing the oversight, which is very badly needed. But to Jeffrey's point, Democrats are not going to go out way on a limb and unilaterally vote to impeach this president. It's too early to even talk about impeachment right now. We don't even have Mueller's report.

CORTES: Robby, they're talking about putting them in jail.

MOOK: I think Democrats need to be cautious about suggesting that yet. But once we have the facts, a determination will be made, and I promise you this, Democrats will not give Republicans the luxury of abdicating their responsibility again. Democrats will wait day in and day out, demand that Republicans do what is their constitutional duty, join with Democrats, and hold the administration accountable.

COOPER: Carrie, I mean, for those who believe that a president can't be indicted, say he's a participant in an extraordinary serious crime of some sort, something far more serious than campaign violations, they believe he still cannot be indicted, correct?

CORDERO: The prevailing legal opinion from the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be indicted while he's sitting. So there could be a sealed indictment that would then come forward once he left office.

But there also is an argument, I think, that -- a new opinion could be written that would take into account the way this president conducts himself in office. In other words, a significant part of the original OLC opinions that were issued by the Justice Department, which are historical and there was one written in the Nixon years, another one that's authoritative that was written in the Clinton years, talk about the fact that an indictment would affect the president into not being able to carry out his duties.

This president as a factual matter spends a lot of his time actually doing things that are not presidential, tweeting executive time, golfing, all of those things. And I actually think there's an argument that that could play against the historical interpretation. But in any event, with respect to this question of impeachment, I think there is a strong argument that politically, because impeachment is a political matter, the Democrats in Congress are not going to want to proceed on these payments to the women.

What does matter is whether or not there was a coordinated obstruction effort, whether the President lied in his written answers to the special counsel, and whether or not it turns out that the Trump campaign coordinated any of the efforts with the Russian government which we already know through the indictments tried to affect the election. Those are matters that Republicans will have a very hard time turning away from.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Jeff, just -- I mean, very quickly. You were on this program, I think, a couple months ago saying that the Kavanaugh appointment was basically the beginning of the unraveling of Roe v. Wade. Today, though, Kavanaugh sided with the liberal justices in a Planned Parenthood case. Do you still believe what you said in light of how he sided today?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I absolutely did. That was a preliminary procedural ruling that was not a ruling on the merits. It wasn't even an opinion in the case. He didn't write an opinion. Keep your eyes up. Keep your eyes peeled for abortion cases, they don't want to engage. That's what really the message was today from the six justices in the majority. They don't want to engage on the subject of abortion yet. But Donald Trump is going to get what he wanted from Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

COOPER: All right, thanks everyone. While the Mueller investigation continues, sources said the President is frustrated, humiliated that he's been, and I'm quoting here, "super pissed," according to our source, not over the Russian probe itself, instead over his search for a new chief of staff. More in that in a moment.


[20:35:01] COOPER: There is breaking news in the search for a new White House chief of staff. Multiple sources say that President Trump is frustrated with how it's going. With one source even saying the President is "super pissed" and humiliated. That's after he was turned down by the Vice President's chief of staff, Nick Ayers. He's not the only one saying thanks but no thanks, several contenders say that they are not interested.

Now keep in mind, the job itself brings its own challenges, but it this chaotic White House, whoever replaces John Kelly faces an even tougher mission with the Mueller investigation and the incoming Democratic controlled House and dealing with the President.

Joining me are Obama White House veteran and CNN Senior Political Commentator David Axelrod and our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

Gloria, I know you've got new reporting on how the President is dealing with this entire process. What his mood has been like?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He's frustrated. He's not happy. I was told that he feels somewhat humiliated by the way this has played out publicly. You know, this is a President who says the best people want to work for my administration, and suddenly you want to offer a very high-level job that most people would jump at in any other administration and he gets turned down and everybody knows about it and he doesn't have any plan B. And so he's not happy.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, David, it is hard to kind of, you know, reconcile a president who says that he only hires, you know, the best and the brightest and the smartest people out there and that they are back logs of people who want to work for his administration with the reality.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I have one word for him, Anderson, craigslist. I mean, nobody wants this job and there's a reason for that. It is a -- who has left this administration save, maybe Nikki Haley, who has left this administration with their reputation intact? People watch what's going on and more than that, they anticipate what the next couple of years are going to be like.

They anti -- if they're smart, they understand that there may be a suggestion they can control what happens in that White House, but there's only one person who controls what happens in that White House, and he is an unmanageable client, and that's the President of the United States. So for all those reasons, people are changing their numbers, running -- going on a long vacation, doing anything they can to avoid his call right now.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, Gloria, it seems -- I mean, to David's point, both the combination of a horrible working environment just in terms of, you know, how the place is set up, unlike any other White House, you know, certainly that in modern times, and the potential for long- term career damage.

BORGER: Right. And I'm told that was part of Nick Ayers' calculation. I mean, you're kind of stepping into the unknown here because you don't know what's going to unfold with the Mueller investigation. Do you want to be on top of that? Do you want to suddenly --

COOPER: Or buried under it.

BORGER: Right. Do you want to do that? I sort of doubt it. And, you know, Ayers had wanted to be there for a short period of time and the President wanted somebody like Ayers who's got political sensibilities because the President actually understands what he's heading into for the next two years with the democratically controlled House and with the Mueller investigation.

And, you n know, he always criticized Kelly for not having, you know, political sensibility. But I think Ayers had enough political sensibility to say, "No way I'm stepping into this mess."

COOPER: David, I mean, are there indications the President wants someone who is truly good at running the west-wing, dealing with Congress, doing everything that the job traditionally entails? Or do you think he want someone spoiling for a political fight, potentially an impeachment fight, or someone who's just going to kowtow to his every wish?

AXELROD: Well, I think it's a combination of those things. But I think it was a tell that he wanted Ayers in that job because I think he have used his next two years as a long fight for re-election through very difficult circumstances and he wants someone who has the political sophistication to kind of meld the White House with his political operation to try and save his political career.

I think he misses the other piece of this, which is that the incoming from Congress is going to be very, very intense. As you guys have mentioned, Mueller seems to be breathing down his neck and that is a huge, huge managerial problem for whomever it takes that job.

But I maintain the biggest problem is still the fact that you may be able to manage down to some degree, although you plainly can't manage the President's daughter and her husband who are key players there.

But what you absolutely can't do is manage up, because Donald Trump is going to tweet, he is going to speak, he is going to do all those things that he thinks got him here. And in this situation and in this environment, that's a very perilous thing. So you're left there helpless, but with a big title.

BORGER: You know, and Donald Trump wants to be his own chief of staff.

COOPER: Right.

[20:40:00] BORGER: He wants to be his own lawyer too. Do you think his lawyers like the fact that he's tweeting about Mueller? Of course not. And he will continue doing what he wants to do and there's no way to control him. So he's his own chief of staff. He just needs somebody to kind of run the ship, maybe.

COOPER: All right, maybe. Gloria Borger, thanks, David Axelrod, as well, thank you.

Up next, not one, not even five or 10, you got to go higher. More about our latest reporting on the number of associates of President Trump who had contact with Russians during the campaign or transition when "360" continues.


COOPER: Back to our breaking news at the top of the hour. Accused Russian spy, Maria Butina, is cooperating with federal prosecutors after agreeing to a plea deal according to sources particular familiar with the matter.

Now, again, this is not directly connected to the Mueller probe, but it does come after new filings in the Russia probe and, of course, from the Southern District of New York on Friday leading to new questions for team Trump.

And as we mentioned earlier by CNN's count, we now know that at least 16 associates of candidate Trump who had contact with Russians during the campaign or the transition. And this comes from public statements, from court filings and reporting from CNN and other news outlets.

As we touched on already, all of this even as the President's associates repeatedly denied any contacts with the Russians during the campaign or the transition.

[20:45:07] Joining me for their take is Tom Hamburger of "The Washington Post" and Steve Hall, a retired CIA Chief of Russia Operations and a CNN National Security Analyst.

This plea deal with Butina is yet another Russian who'd actively been trying to influence the U.S. political system according to authorities. But who she was influencing and how she was doing it, that we really still don't know, is that correct?

TOM HAMBURGER, POLITICAL INVESTIGATIONS REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, it's not -- it's certainly not clear. We do know that she's changing her plea. What exactly she's pleading to and who she influenced precisely, we don't know. We do know some of her history. She was interacting with some prominent Republicans and conservatives during 2016 and met many of the -- some of the presidential candidates during the campaign.

COOPER: I mean, Steve, it's certainly not every day that an alleged Russian spy agrees to a plea deal and starts cooperating with federal prosecutors.

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, Anderson. This is -- I've heard a couple of commentators talk recently about eight years ago the group of 10 Russian illegals that were caught, arrested, and then returned in exchange for Russian spies, I think this is a little bit different.

Maria Butina in my mind is not a formal illegal. She does -- probably doesn't work directly for the Russian intelligence services, but she's rather something that we refer to as a co-optee, somebody that has been approached by the Russian government at some aspects, I think -- we're not sure exactly who yet, in return for certain services here in the United States.

And I think that's why you're seeing the legal path that she's going down right now as opposed to some sort of, you know, a spy swap like we saw back in 2000 with the illegals at that time.

COOPER: You're saying if she was naturally, you know, an intelligence officer directly working for one of the intelligence services in Russia, that they would be more likely there would be some sort of swap?

HALL: It would have gone very differently I think from a legal perspective. I don't think she would have been in jail for as long and I think the Russians would have been much more aggressive about cutting some sort of diplomatic or some sort of spy deal.

COOPER: Tom, I mean, of all the Trump associates who did have contact with Russians during the campaign, right now it's 16 by CNN's count, you know, it's easy to get mired in the details of this, but kind of big picture. That's just not normal, is it?

HAMBURGER: It is not normal, and that's what we've heard from people involved with presidential campaigns going back to Ronald Reagan. Of course, presidential campaigns have contacts with foreign officials.

Trevor Potter, who was the counsel to the John McCain campaign in 2008 said, yes, there were contacts that the candidate and others had with foreign officials, but it was always done through cooperation with the State Department. There was transparency and he added never did the discussions have to do with personal business deals or with the candidate's personal political outlook.

COOPER: Steve, talk a little bit about how the Russian intelligence services actually work. And particularly, you know, looking at Michael Cohen and his contacts with Russians, what we know about them so far. Is that sort of typical Russian operations?

HALL: It bears a lot of the hallmarks, Anderson. I mean if you look at the information that was released on Friday by Mueller's office, just with regard to Cohen, it's a really nice nut shell. We know that -- in a location and nut shell. We know that the Russians were casting a wide net when they were looking at the Trump team and the Trump campaign.

So, you know, they knew that Cohen had the access because he was the personal lawyer and then he also had an e-mail as we now know that was associated with the Trump campaign. We knew that he was deeply in debt so he had vulnerabilities, he had motivations that the Russians could take advantage of.

And perhaps most importantly, and this is sort of a common thing with these over a dozen people now that had been associated with Russia, is the approach to him was quite reasonable. It wasn't like, you know, "Hi, I'm from the Russian government. Let's talk about how -- what you can tell me about Trump." It was more like, "Hey, let's talk about synergy between our governments. Let's talk about how important the American-Russian relationship with was." And then --


HALL: Yes, and that's an interesting way. But it's a very non- threatening way. It's an innocent way to start down that path.

COOPER: Tom, I mean, the willingness of Trump aides to engage for what appears to be a wide variety of reasons. I mean, it almost seems like Russia took notice of that early on and may -- would have -- from an intelligence standpoint, I mean that's the kind of thing you would want to make the most of.

HAMBURGER: Well, one of the things that people involved with previous campaigns made clear to us is that the number of contacts and the nature were both unusual. So as Steve was just saying, you had some contacts that initiated around Trump Tower Moscow, but quickly a word like synergy gets imposed by one of the Russian nationals in touch with Michael Cohen.

Felix Sater, who was working with Michael Cohen to build a Trump Tower Moscow talked about it as an opportunity not only for economic gain and to achieve a long-sought goal by the Trump organization, but also a chance to help boost Donald Trump's presidential ambitions, putting Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin perhaps on stage at a ground breaking at the same time.

[20:50:19] COOPER: Tom Hamburger, appreciate you being with us, Steve Hall as well always. Thank you, guys.

All right, let's check in with Chris and see what he's working on for "Cuomo Prime Time" at the top of the hour. Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, how are you doing, my friend? So, this is just such a wild atmosphere that we're living in. And it's almost impossible to plan the show --

COOPER: Yes, I know.

CUOMO: -- because things break late. Jim Acosta just puts out reporting saying that, yes, the President is ruminating/worrying/whatever verb you want to put in about what Democrats are going to do with respect to impeachment. That now he is worried.

And it just so happen that tonight part of the plan of the show was to give the President good reason to worry. This "New York Times" op-ed by a former White House in-house counsel about what obstruction is that dovetails perfectly with what you were just saying with those two excellent guests about what is seen and unseen, what it could mean in obstruction, because that's a conversation we've had very little because we don't really know anything beyond the obvious with Comey, but now we're learning more.

And those 16 contacts, you know, associates with contacts is leading to a new tendency for this probe and that must be alarming to this president. And a letter from over 40 former senators just came out to their colleagues in office now with all this language. I'm going to read it on the show. I've never read a letter like this before, so -- and that just so happened in the last 15 minutes while I was looking at your handsome face.

COOPER: All right. We'll see you in about eight minutes for all of that, Chris. Appreciate it. Thanks

A little question, President Trump has a solid base of supporters but is one portion of that base now maybe a little bit shakier after one of the latest presidential tweets? We'll explore that just ahead.


[20:56:20] COOPER: President Trump continues to have a solid base of support among evangelical voters, but his belittling attack on former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just may be the latest in a long line of tweets contributing some erosion of that base.

It all began when Tillerson publicly chastised the President for being undisciplined, for not being especially fond of reading and for requesting actions that in Tillerson's view were illegal.

That led to this presidential tweet, and I'm quoting. "Mike Pompeo is doing a great job, I'm very proud of him. His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn't have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn't get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell. Now it is a whole new ball game, great spirit at state."

In the view of David Brody, the Chief Political Analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network, that might not have been the wisest move on the part of President Trump

David, over the weekend, you responded to the President's tweet saying, "He won't lose diehards, but fence-sitting ones who are fed up with these kinds of tweets will decide if he gets a second term."

It's interesting it may -- I mean, what he tweeted certainly was about, you know, Tillerson, but certainly it wasn't the worst thing in terms of insults he's ever tweeted about someone. What about it made you kind of think about that? DAVID BRODY, CHIEF POLTICIAL ANALYST, CBN: Well, it's pile-on situation, Anderson. Its kindergarten stuff and he's done this before, we know about that so we can list all of them. But the truth of the matter is that this is piling up with fence-sitting evangelicals and what I mean by that is it ultimately those fence- sitting evangelicals are going to have to decide, do they want to support him again.

And I'm not talking about the deplorable evangelicals as I like to call them, but the ones that he had it hello from the beginning. I'm talking about those ones that kind held their nose a little bit.

COOPER: I think the point you're making is important one because it's very easy, I think, for people to paint evangelicals with a very broad brush and sort of think about evangelicals as this one block of people but obviously there are different philosophies in it, different outlooks, different points of view and it's interesting that you're kind of breaking it down to, you know, fence-sitters and people who are, you know, they had -- they were for Trump from the beginning.

BRODY: Well, I think it's very dangerous, especially for the Trump administration, to think they just have all evangelicals, that those just be with them again. And, look, this administration has done a lot for evangelicals, I don't think there's any question about it. But you can't assume that the whole pie is going to be with you in 2020 for sure.

Now, look, having said that, Anderson, I have to tell you that the folks that are on the fence, at least from an informal poll on Twitter but beyond that word on the evangelical street, the folks that I travel in basically say that they will still take actions over insults.

COOPER: So bottom line, the kind of the point you've been making just in the last couple of days with some of the tweets you send is that the administration should not take evangelicals for granted that, you know, the percentage he got, there are a certain number, a certain percentage -- of the percentage who voted for him, the 81 or so percent of evangelicals who went to the polls who voted for Trump, some of them are what you say are fence-sitters and this cumulative effect could hurt Trump if they turn against him?

BRODY: Yes, I think that is a distinct possibility. Having said that -- and here's the other part and this is the important part as well, Anderson, there's a lot of evangelicals that did not actually vote for Trump in 2016 and those folks will see a lot of his actions in these first couple years of his administration and go, "You know what, he was right on judges, he was right on the life issue, he was right on the embassy in Jerusalem." And those folks actually may in turn vote for him. So you could have 2 percent less of those fence-sitting that say enough with the insults, but he could gain some folks, too.

COOPER: A lot can happen in two years in any direction.


COOPER: David Brody, good to talk to you as always. Thank you.

BRODY: Thanks, Anderson.

COOPER: And a quick reminder. Don't miss "Full Circle." It's our daily interactive newscast on Facebook. You get to vote on some of the stories we cover. You can get all the details.