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Trade War?; Porn Star Suing President Trump; Staff Leaving the Trump Administration in Record Numbers. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 7, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A porn start and a major staff departure, just another day in the Trump White House.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Moments ago, the Trump White House responded after a porn star sued the president for the right to speak about their alleged affair. Will we hear Stormy thunder?

Wall Street starts to sweat as one of its own bolts from the White House. Is this the kind of chaos that President Trump likes?

Plus, where is Jack Ryan when you need him? We now know someone tried to kill an ex-Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent. Was it Putin's poison?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

For the first time today, the White House press secretary, with several robust exchanges about the president and a porn star. Sarah Sanders taking question after question about what the president knew about payments his lawyer made to an adult film actress named Stormy Daniels.

Last night in California, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, filed a lawsuit against President Trump alleging that the president and his attorney were trying to silence her. Ms. Daniels is also claiming that the nondisclosure agreement she signed for which she was paid $130,000 right before the 2016 presidential election is null and void since President Trump never actually signed it.

Daniels has claimed in the past that she and President Trump had a sexual relationship in 2006 and 2007.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live at the White House.

Jeff, Sarah Sanders, the president's spokesperson, seemed to hedge a little in response to your question.


This is a question that has been asked around the periphery here for some time. Did the president know about that payment made in October of 2016 to Stormy Daniels? The White House has repeatedly said, our feelings are well known about that.

They have not gone beyond that to answer the substantive questions which really are coming out day by day here. But the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said the arbitration won as in the president's favor.

Well, that of course was odd, because Stormy Daniels, in her legal action, said they were never made known about this in the first place here. So it seemed the White House press secretary opened the door to some more deeper questions about this. This is what she said to some of them.


ZELENY: You have said repeatedly we that have addressed our feelings on that situation in regards to the Stormy Daniels payment. But specifically can I ask, did the president approve of the payment that was made in October of 2016 by his longtime lawyer and adviser Michael Cohen?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, the president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true. This case has already been won in arbitration and anything beyond that, I would refer you to the president's outside counsel.

QUESTION: Has he talked to Michael Cohen about it?


QUESTION: Has he talked to Michael Cohen about that this week?



ZELENY: So, the White House press secretary there, Sarah Sanders, essentially tying the president to this arbitration, which he wasn't necessarily supposed to know about, Jake.

Certainly adding to the questions, I would say, but also adding to the potential legal situation here. Again, Stormy Daniels said she was never told about any arbitration. That's why Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer who we have reached out, has not yet gotten back to us, is still in the middle of a deepening, bizarre story -- Jake.

TAPPER: I guess the question is did Sarah Sanders clear anything up today or did she add more layers of confusion and maybe was that the point?

ZELENY: Jake, I do not believe she cleared anything up. She has said repeatedly, trying to say this has been asked and answered, the voters certainly weighed in on the substance of the president's alleged affairs. But again this is a different matter in terms of the payment, so she didn't answer that at all. There are questions about that. But she did open the door to more questions again about the arbitration here. We will see where this goes from here, Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

So to what lengths did President Trump and/or his lawyer try cover up his alleged affair with this adult film actress and was any of it illegal? Daniels claims she was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement and President Trump's personal lawyer used coercive tactics to keep her quiet, tactics used as recently as last week, she claims.

Let's bring in CNN's Drew Griffin.

Drew, the White House did not address any claims of intimidation. But the lawyer for Ms. Daniels, he sure is.


Daniels' new lawyer filed this lawsuit yesterday claiming not only was she being pressured as recently as last week, as you said, to keep quiet, but that this nondisclosure agreement that bought her silence should be legally declared null and void because Donald Trump never signed it.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): The lawsuit in explicit detail leaves no doubt Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, says she had an affair with the president.

Ms. Clifford began an intimate relationship with Mr. Trump in the summer of 2006 in Lake Tahoe, the lawsuit claims. Then in October 2016, Mr. Trump, with the assistance of his attorney, Mr. Cohen, aggressively sought to silence Ms. Clifford as part of an effort to avoid her telling truth, thus helping to ensure he won the presidential election.


In exchange, Trump's attorney Michael Cohen wired Daniels $130,000 and Clifford's new attorney, Michael Avenatti, told NBC's "Today Show" he has no doubt the president knew.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: There is no question the president knew at the time. The idea that an attorney would go off on his own without his client's knowledge and engage in this type of negotiation and enter into this type of agreement quite honestly I think is ludicrous.

GRIFFIN: But the real damning information, if true, is what happened a little more than a week ago. The president's attorney tried yet again to silence Clifford. On or about February 27, 2018, Mr. Trump's attorney, Mr. Cohen, surreptitiously initiated a bogus arbitration proceeding against Ms. Clifford in Los Angeles, the lawsuit says, in an attempt to intimidate Ms. Clifford into silence and shut her up.

Clifford's lawyer included this so-called hush agreement in the lawsuit, saying it was written by Michael Cohen. It refers to Donald Trump under an alias, David Dennison, and Clifford under the name Peggy Peterson.

According to the hush agreement, Stephanie Clifford came into possession of certain confidential information pertaining to D.D, Trump's alias, which includes information, certain still images and/or text messages.

Michael Cohen goes on to write, "Included in those are images Donald Trump previously presented to his counsel to exist, i.e., text messages between P.P. and D.D."

In other words, Trump told his personal attorney about communications he was having with a porn actress. The pressure being applied to Clifford could explain her recent bizarre talk show appearances.

QUESTION: Did you have a sexual relationship with Donald Trump?

GRIFFIN: Clifford is now eager to talk and explain why she claims she was coerced into signing a false statement that the affair didn't happen.

According to the lawsuit, any breach of the contract would mean Clifford would be obligated to pay the sum of $1 million.


GRIFFIN: And Jake, the denial of Trump, from Trump, comes through his attorney Michael Cohen. He's denied the affair never took place. Cohen himself claims he never consulted Trump about the nondisclosure agreement and the $130,000 payment to keep Stephanie Clifford quiet.

This lawsuit, Jake, challenges all of that.

TAPPER: Drew Griffin, thank you so much.

I want to bring in my panel.

Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with you.

As a legal matter, does this lawsuit have any merit and is there anything that President Trump or Michael Cohen may have done that would be against the law?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Let me answer the second part first.

As far as I can see, there is nothing unlawful that went on. This was a contract between people for the payment of money in turn for silence. There's nothing illegal about that.

The question is, is this a valid contract? And according to Daniels' lawyer, Trump never signed it. And if Trump never signed it, under whatever name or under any name that is legally binding, then she is free to do whatever she wants.

So I think the threshold issue is, was there a contract and did Donald Trump sign it? According to the copy that is attached to the lawsuit, his name is not on it. But there may be some other copy out there where he did sign.

TAPPER: Stormy Daniels claims in her lawsuit, Amanda, that she was forced to sign the false statement when she told "The Wall Street Journal" -- quote -- "Rumors that I received hush money from Donald Trump are completely false."

Then page five of the lawsuit details another act of intimidation, according to her, from just last Tuesday, February 27. The fact this may still be going on up until February of 2018 certainly seems to change this whole idea, like this happened in the distant past.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, if there's ongoing acts of intimidation, certainly, that is worthy of an investigation.

The one thing that we do know that is not in question is that we have two firm instances of Trump's allies using the legal process to buy the silence of women in order to suppress information from voters before the election. These are questions that get to the president's character and that certainly were big factors in this election, given the "Access Hollywood" tapes.

We're talking about Donald Trump covering up affairs he had with an adult film actress, a former Playboy model during the elections. This was an active thing. And voters should have had access to that information, because it does get to the president's character not only in terms of him not being faithful to his wife, potentially damaging his children in the process. But these are things that open up a president to blackmail, extortion, corruption.


The fact voters didn't have access to this information is very, very worrisome.

TAPPER: Symone, the White House repeated today that the case has already been addressed. They didn't need to talk about it. The president has already talked about it.

Since "The Wall Street Journal" dropped -- "Wall Street Journal"'s story, breaking the story of Stormy Daniels, dropped back in January of this year, we can only recall one other time the White House talked about it at all. And take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no question the president knew about it at the time. We haven't disclosed all the facts and evidence that we're aware of in connection with this as it relates to the filing of the complaint and there are many additional facts and evidence we have and we think that's going to come to life.


TAPPER: No, that's not the sound bite I wanted. I wanted sound bite number three. It's Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary, answering questions. Anyway, we're having some issue with that.

But I guess one of the problems is -- OK, here it is.


QUESTION: Is the president aware that his lawyer paid that kind of money to a porn star to buy her silence? Does he have proof of that?

RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: I haven't asked him about it, but that matter has been asked and answered in the past.


QUESTION: He acknowledged this last week.


QUESTION: So, can you go back? Can we find out if the president approves...


SHAH: I haven't asked him about it. I haven't asked him about it.


QUESTION: But will you ask him about it, Raj?

SHAH: I will get back to you.


TAPPER: So there is just this whole spray of lies about this.

First of all, you heard Sarah Sanders today act as though the American people knew about this incident back in 2016 before Donald Trump got elected. No, they didn't. The story broke in January.


TAPPER: And then, second of all, they keep saying, oh, we have addressed this, we have addressed this. They haven't addressed this.

SANDERS: They haven't addressed anything.

And I think it is a sad tactic for the White House Press Secretary's office and their shop to use the fact they have not directly asked the president about it to absolve themselves from answering questions.

That's a tactic and I think the American people should know that it is their duty to go and get these answers. That's why they stand in front of the podium. At this point, they're trying to avoid -- I think the press office is

trying to avoid actual lies by saying we haven't asked the president about it, I have not asked, will you ask, I will get back to you.

Again, they are trying to avoid themselves being caught up in this web of lies that President Trump and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, have helped weave together. I think that is what happening here. But we don't have the answers, Jake. We want the answers. I don't know who has the answers, but I would like to find them.

TAPPER: Does this matter, Amanda? Does it matter that President Trump may have spend $130,000 or his lawyer may have done that to buy the silence of a woman him whom he had an extramarital affair?

CARPENTER: It should matter.

I have heard some Republicans and conservative talkers say this stuff happens. Bill Clinton did it. Voters don't care.

I care. I will be the fussy conservative that actually believes in family values still. Donald Trump went through a very messy divorce with his first wife, Ivana. I can't imagine that that didn't do some damage to his children.

It was messy. It was out in the tabloids. Everybody can go look it up. And when I see this now, I think of Barron. He's old enough to read. Let's get out of the political world. Let's get out of the legal world.

Does a man of character do something like this? Can you trust him with the power of the presidency knowing he would potentially wreck his family and hide it in court and pay off these women? No.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

It's not just how many people are leaving the White House these days. It is also why they're leaving the White House. That's next. Stay with us.


[16:17:45] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with the politics lead.

Today, a tense day on Wall Street, with the departure of President Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn, leaving the White House because of his strenuous objections to the tariffs President Trump is set to impose.

Senator John Thune, a member of Republican leadership, today calling Cohn, quote, the voice of reason. Thune continuing: I'm concerned about who's going to be in the president's ear, unquote.

This underlines one of the more important points of the veritable cavalcade of White House and Trump administration departures that we've seen almost every since Mr. Trump took office. It's not just the number of departures that is so jarring, although the sheer volume is quite astounding. It's also the reasoning behind these exits.

Highlighting substantive issues, whether related to ethics or lack thereof, or the Russia investigation, or anything else, reasons that explain why the presidential approval rating is historically low.

The first major departure was national security adviser Michael Flynn who was fired after he lied to the FBI and to the Vice President about his contacts to the Russian ambassador.

Unless we forget, the fired FBI Director James Comey who has said the president asked him for his personal loyalty and to take it easy on Flynn. Now, the president denied that had but did say he was thinking of the Russian investigation when he decided to send Comey packing.

K.T. McFarland was Michael Flynn's deputy after a new national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster came on board, replacing Flynn. McFarland was nominated to be ambassador to Singapore. During confirmation hearings however, she had been asked about communications between the Russian ambassador and her former boss, Mike Flynn. And she responded, quote, I am not aware of any of the issues or events described. An e-mail obtained "The New York Times" called that into question, and the Senate put a hold on her nomination until she further explain, her name was soon withdrawn from contention.

Scandal has seemed to play a role in other departures as well. Last week, after a marathon testimony before the House Intelligence Committee for their Russia probe, top aide Hope Hicks announced her resignation, a surprise to many since she's one of the president's closest confidence.

Her exit also came after the departure of Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary to whom she has been romantically linked. He was fired after past allegations of domestic violence against him were publicly revealed.

[16:20:03] Turbulence and chaos has marked the Trump administration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer headed for the door in July after Anthony Scaramucci was named as a new White House communications director, a move Spicer adamantly opposed. The Mooch helped get rid of chief of staff Reince Priebus who was only 11 days into his time at the White House as Scaramucci was fired himself by John Kelly, on his first day as chief of staff, following some rather colorful commentary to "The New Yorker".

Scaramucci's departure was followed by Steve Bannon, the nationalist id of the president's campaign. Shortly thereafter, Sebastian Gorka also ignominiously fired, said in his resignation letter obtained by "The Federalist" that, quote, forces that do not support the MAGA promise are -- for now -- ascendant within the White House.

Kelly also showed the door to Omarosa Manigault Newman, who soon showed up on "Celebrity Big Brother".

And don't forget those pesky ethics questions that have also dodged some members of the administration. Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price resigning after his use of private jets for government travelled emerged. CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald quitting after it was revealed she bought tobacco stock. And, of course, there are the numerous allegations of racists, homophobic, or otherwise inappropriate comments made by those nominated or serving in their Trump administration roles, many of which were brought to light by CNN's KFILE team, also leading to a slew of departure. This list of departures, which by the way, is not even close to comprehensive.

We still don't know who might be next voted off the island. H.R. McMaster perhaps? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who reportedly called the president a moron? Attorney General Jeff Sessions who basically dared the president to fire him last week about the Russia probe? Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also in hot water over the Russia probe, as his FBI director, Christopher Wray. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner who's been under scrutiny for security and ethical concerns, and, of course, the chief of staff, the one allegedly bringing order to the White House, John Kelly.

So, in context, as you cold out a cold one for your homey Gary Cohn, your Comey (ph), who almost left once before by the way after President Trump claimed they were very fine people alongside the Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville, while you pour out your cold one for Gary Cohn, keep in mind what matters just as much as who is leaving is why they're leaving.

We'll be right back.



[16:26:29] SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is an intense place as is every White House. And it's not abnormal that you would have people come and go. But we're continuing to do great work. We're continuing to focus on the president's agenda and that's what we're all here to do.


TAPPER: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders this afternoon on the staffing churn at the White House so far of the Trump administration, has had higher staff turnover than any of the previous five administrations, according to the Brookings Institution.

We're back with our politics lead and my panel.

So, the president, Symone, has defended his style of management saying that he likes conflict. There is nothing wrong with a little conflict.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There is nothing wrong with little conflict, Jake, but I think this White House is different. Look, I think it's a black hole for moral character and leadership and almost every single staffer in the West Wing is lawyered up, they don't trust each other, they don't trust what the president is saying.

And why should they? Because something different comes out every single day. Look, this may be a reality TV president, and he may be -- he may think that he is running a reality television show. But the difference is the ratings which are these -- our standing in the world, they have real consequences. This is not just about the polls, if you will, or what the people are saying on television.

TAPPER: Yes, the president also said people are lining up to work at the White House and get a piece of the West Wing.

Here's what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said about that today.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: One of the problems here is the White House is getting hollowed out and the number of people capable of doing real things, whether you agree or disagree ideologically is getting smaller and smaller, and they seem unable to recruit new people to take these jobs. So the kind of mess-ups that we've seen, I think we're going to see over and over and over again.


TAPPER: I know you're not the biggest fan of Senator Schumer, but do you disagree with what he said?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, one of the things that was hammered into my head when I was working for a Jim DeMint was that personnel is policy and if you don't have great personnel, you were not going to have great policy.

And so, when you have a person like Gary Cohn who has to work this whole slew of questionable characters who are now, you know, resigning because of ethical compass, all kinds of reasons, you have a few people who try to go to the administration because they believe they can exercise some influence over their area of expertise. That's the shred of hope they're hanging on to.

So, when you wake up and you have your whole economic world thrown into disaster because of a tweet, what's the point on staying? You go.

TAPPER: And, Jeffrey, Cohn had talked about leaving before after the president seemed to make moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and the protesters in Charlottesville.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I have to say, I am less sympathetic to Gary Cohn than many people. The idea that, you know, he wants to take a great moral stand over aluminum but he won't take a big stand -- a moral stand over racism. I don't think that speaks volumes about his character.

But, you know, in terms of substance, you know, it matters. I mean, personnel is policy. The fact that there is -- that he didn't quit over -- you know, that matters. And I just think it's -- you know, I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought. The fact that he couldn't get tariff announcement out with people

lined up to support it with -- by surprising the people on Capitol Hill --


TOOBIN: -- that -- the procedures matter. And the fact that he couldn't get his act together to release the tariffs in an intelligent way, that shows how when you don't have good staff, you can't get good results.

TAPPER: Symone, Gary Cohn is a former Goldman Sachs executive.

SANDERS: He was the best thing that ever happened to Goldman Sachs in the White House.