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Mystery Man in Russia Probe?; Porn Star Suing President Trump; Interview With Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes; NYT: Trump Spoke with Key Witnesses About Matters Discussed with Special Counsel. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 7, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Stand by for a powerful new accusation by her lawyer.

Secret meeting exposed. A mystery man with ties to the Trump team is now cooperating with the special counsel after taking part in clandestine talks during the transition. What might he know about possible foreign influence of top administration officials?

Former spy poisoned. Who is behind the attempted murder of a former Russian agent convicted of selling Kremlin secrets? We will have a live report from the scene of the crime, as suspicion falls on Vladimir Putin.

And making history. The president is trying to downplay a record number of high-level resignations as Gary Cohn's exit rattles Wall Street. This hour, the White House ramping up its denial of an administration in turmoil.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the new lawsuit against President Trump by former porn star Stormy Daniels, formally confirming her claim of a past affair with Mr. Trump and declaring the deal to keep her silent is now invalid.

We just got a powerful new statement from Stormy Daniels' lawyer. The White House hit with multiple questions tonight about Daniels' alleged affair with the president. I will get reaction from Congressman Jim Himes. He's a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, who is working the story for us.

Drew, what are you hearing tonight from Daniels' attorney? DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Stormy Daniels'

attorney this afternoon is describing a bare-knuckles legal fight that is continuing right at this moment with President Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, trying to enforce a temporary restraining order against Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet, not just about the affair, Wolf, but anything to do with the non-disclosure agreement.

Clifford's attorney, Michael Avenatti, says: "Earlier today, Mr. Cohen, through his attorney, further threatened my client in an effort to prevent her from telling the truth about what really happened."

What did really happen? Wolf, according to Daniels' attorney, it's now laid out in this just-filed lawsuit.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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.

[18:05:00]

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Wolf, there's a lot of confusing back and forth between lawyers tonight.

Cohen's lawyer saying an arbitration judge found Clifford had violated the agreement, saying that the judge "found that Ms. Clifford had violated the agreement and enjoined her from, among other things, filing this very lawsuit. We intend to pursue our recourse in the context of the arbitration as agreed to by the parties," he told us, "and continue to categorically refute the claims alleged by Ms. Clifford and her counsel."

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters today that an arbitration was won in the president's favor. But tonight Stephanie Clifford's attorney just says: "First of all, it doesn't appear as if he was a party to the arbitration," referring to Mr. Trump, "Ms. Sanders is referring to. How can you win something you're not even a party of. Secondly, claiming that Mr. Trump won at arbitration when there has been no hearing, no notice to Ms. Clifford, no opportunity given to her to respond and no decision on the merits is completely bogus" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Really tough exchange of words between these attorneys. Drew Griffin, thanks for that good report.

Let's get some more on the White House response to the Stormy Daniels's lawsuit.

We're joined by our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, what is the White House saying about the new statement by Stormy Daniels' lawyer saying that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders is simply wrong?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf.

We went back to the White House press team in just the last hour and asked about these new statements from Stormy Daniels' attorney, essentially alleging the president didn't win any sort of arbitration procedure and also the other allegation from Stormy Daniels' lawyer that Michael Cohen and the president's legal team has been threatening and harassing her.

They just have not gotten back to us on that. But, Wolf, it was pretty clear today in the White House press briefing today that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was struggling to talk about this issue. At one point, she said the president has made it clear he's denied these allegations.

That has not happened, Wolf. We haven't heard from the president on this issue at any length. My guess is the next time the president is in front of the cameras, he will be asked about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: 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.

ZELENY: When did the president address specifically the cash payment that was made in October of 2016?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president has denied the allegations against him. And, again, this case has already been won in arbitration. Anything beyond that, I would refer you to outside counsel.

ZELENY: Did he know about that payment at the time, though?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I have addressed this as far as I can go.

QUESTION: Did he know about the payment at the time?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. And, again, anything beyond what I have already given you, I would refer you to the president's outside counsel.

ZELENY: Has he talked to Michael Cohen about that since this has become...

(CROSSTALK)

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

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't know. I'm not sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, as you can see in that exchange with my colleague Jeff Zeleny, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders volunteered this information that the president won some sort of arbitration proceeding against Stormy Daniels.

Wolf, that is obviously something that her attorney is pushing back on. The other thing we should point out, Wolf, I have talked to a couple of sources close to the White House in just the last several minutes who are essentially scratching their heads and wondering why Sarah Sanders decided to handle the issue that way.

One source said to me that this issue about arbitration had not come up until she essentially talked about it in the briefing today. It was mentioned in this paperwork yesterday, but the public hadn't really focused on it until Sarah Sanders talked about it at the briefing with reporters.

And in the words of another source I talked to who is close to the White House just in the last several minutes, this was sloppy on the part of Sarah Sanders. My guess is, the way she danced around these questions today, it's almost certain she will have to answer more of those questions the next time she's at the podium -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the lawyer representing Stormy Daniels will be joining Anderson Cooper at 8:00 p.m. Eastern later tonight. We will be getting more on that. So, our viewers will be interested.

Jim Acosta over at the White House, thanks very much.

In the Russia investigation tonight, sources tell CNN that a so-called man of mystery is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.

We're digging deeper into the man's identity, his ties to the Trump team and his role in secret meetings during the transition.

Let's bring in our political correspondent, Sara Murray. She is working this part of the story for us.

[18:10:01]

What are you learning, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're learning about this man named George Nader.

He's a Middle East specialist. He had a number of contacts with members of Donald Trump's inner circle, as well as with Emirati officials. Now sources say he's cooperating with the special counsel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): George Nader, a Lebanese American with a reputation as a man of mystery, attended secret meetings during the presidential transition with the officials from the United Arab Emirates and Trump associates.

Sources say Nader was stopped and questioned by the FBI at Dulles International Airport in January returning from an overseas trip. Since then, he's been talking to Mueller's investigators and providing information to the grand jury.

The special counsel's interest in the Emiratis suggests an investigation expanding beyond questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It points to broader concerns about foreign influence during the presidential campaign and long after it ended.

Investigators have been probing two meetings Nader attended, a December 2016 meeting in New York led by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and attended by members of Trump's team, including Jared Kushner, soon to be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, strategist to the incoming president.

A meeting in the Seychelles Islands followed in January 2017 between Erik Prince, the Blackwater private security firm founder and Trump associate, and Emirati officials, say people familiar with the meeting.

Nader was also present at the hotel bar when Prince met Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund. It's unclear whether Nader was involved in the conversation. There's no indication Nader is suspected of wrongdoing, but his insight into those key meetings with the Emiratis could help Mueller understand potential efforts to influence key figures in the administration.

After the election, sources say Nader stayed in contact with some senior administration officials, including Bannon and Kushner. Nader kept a low profile, but made inroads in administrations going back to the 1980s, often by volunteering to open lines of communications with leaders in the Middle East.

In the '80s and '90s people knew him as the editor of a magazine called "Middle East Insight" and his unusual Rolodex was packed with some of the most prominent and elusive figures in the region.

AARON DAVID MILLER, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: George could essentially reach and talk to people that we couldn't, including Hezbollah, contacts with the Assad regime and their intelligence organizations, as well as Iran.

MURRAY: Nader's role as a go-between called for plenty of discreet name-dropping. But his information was often credible, according to Middle East experts in administrations spanning from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.

MILLER: In that business, you don't survive, both physically and politically, without keeping condenses, particularly when you're working cross-borders, as George seemed to do.

MURRAY: Nader all but disappeared over the past decade, his former colleagues say. One Middle East expert was stunned to hear the well- traveled middleman maintained an address in Washington.

Another was shocked to hear Nader was still alive. He had been under the radar for so long.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, it's not clear how George Nader first came into contact with Donald Trump's inner circle. The White House declined to comment for our story, as did George Nader's lawyer, as did the embassy for the United Arab Emirates.

BLITZER: Very interesting stuff. Sara, thank you very much, Sara Murray reporting.

Let's get back to the breaking news on the president, now being sued by the former porn star Stormy Daniels.

We're joined by Congressman Jim Himes. He's a Democrat. He's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Good evening, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is it plausible that President Trump didn't know about Michael Cohen's $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels or his continued efforts to silence her, most recently with this apparent arbitration last week?

HIMES: Wolf, this is one of those things where we're talking about a Russian attack on our election, our response, and somehow we get dragged into a conversation over whether the president knew that a porn star had reached some sort of settlement.

As a member of Congress, I find it very unlikely that anyone's attorney would spend $130,000 of that client's money without that client knowing about it. But, obviously, I don't know the facts here. This is just one more absurd, embarrassing distraction.

This is the greatest country in the world, and we are spending our time, rather than thinking about being that country, talking about payments by the president to porn stars.

BLITZER: Two of your Democratic colleagues, Ted Lieu, Kathleen Rice, they want the FBI to actually investigate the payment. They say there might be some criminality there, in-kind campaign contributions, for example, that were never reported to the FEC.

Do you think the $130,000 payment could have violated election laws?

[18:15:01]

HIMES: Well, I guess, technically, Wolf, if this was designed to be part of the campaign, that is to say, designed to help the president get elected, it would be, of course, spending to that end and it would, therefore, need to be reported.

I have looked at a lot of campaign finance reports. That would be a first in the history of this country.

And, look, I will never tell any of my colleagues that their focus should be elsewhere, and this president gives us not just once a day, but probably three times a day, reason to doubt his fitness in this office.

But, again, Congress needs to be focused on the fact -- I sit on the Intelligence Committee -- that the Russians attacked us. As we learned in interviews with intelligence leaders in the last couple weeks, the president has ordered no response.

And, by the way, Wolf, let me be impartial about this. I thought Barack Obama's response to the Russian hack was inadequate. So the barn is burning out back, and we should do something about it. But instead we're focusing on the president and his friends and perhaps paid porn stars. And that's a really troubling and problematic thing for people who love this country.

BLITZER: Is this whole Stormy Daniels payment something you believe the special counsel, Robert Mueller, should take a look at?

HIMES: Well, again, it's hard for me to know. Obviously, if this was done surreptitiously -- and here, let me give you the angle that I think is in the national interest, because I'm not sure that this Stormy Daniels thing is in any way, shape or form in the national interest.

But, obviously, if there was behavior, if there was behavior that a foreign power, Russia or anybody else could use to blackmail the president -- and this, of course, has echoes of why we're doing this Russia investigation -- if there is -- and, look, I spend my time looking at our intelligence apparatus.

It is not hard for a foreign power to focus on a given individual, to record them, to take video, to surveil them. If there is behavior behind this that would make the president possibly subject to blackmail, now we're talking really serious issues.

We should see if that is the case, because that would obviously raise this from the sewer, from the cesspool into a matter of national security.

BLITZER: Well, if there's an element of blackmail, that presumably would be something that Mueller should investigate, right?

HIMES: Well, yes, I guess so. Quite frankly, that's something that the national security apparatus should be interested in.

Remember, this cast of characters -- ultimately, Michael Flynn was forced to step down because he lied about contacts that he had with the Russians, and, of course, the Russians knew that, and they could have blacked mailed him. That was the scandal there.

Never a good idea to lie to the FBI. But Michael Flynn handed an antagonistic foreign power a way to blackmail him as national security adviser. That is a very serious possibility. And that, setting aside the prurient interest that may exist for this story, that for somebody like me who is focused on national security is a very real risk. BLITZER: Let me ask you about this businessman and Trump go-between

George Nader who is now cooperating with the special counsel. What information could he give Robert Mueller about these secret meetings with the United Arab Emirates and a Russian banker?

HIMES: Well, I should start by saying that there is not really any communication between Bob Mueller's investigation and the congressional investigations that are occurring, including the one here in the House.

So, it's hard for us to know what it is that he may be doing with Bob Mueller's investigation. What I will tell you is -- and this is a matter of public record, because, of course, when the Erik Prince testimony, when he testified before my committee, that was made public.

And if you go back and you look at that testimony, the way that meeting in the Seychelles was characterized by Erik Prince was, gosh, I just worked out, and I went down and somebody said, hey, why don't you have a beer with this guy in the lobby bar, and nothing happened, it was really quick and nothing happened.

Well, now it turns out that there may have been a third party there. And I want to be careful how I talk about this. This is all allegations. But You know what? If there was a shadowy individual who was at that meeting with a Russian oligarch, and Erik Prince, with all of his connections to the Trump campaign and, by the way, a sibling of a Cabinet member, is there, I really want to know, first of all, why we were misled, if we were in fact misled, and, secondly, what really happened in that meeting.

BLITZER: The United Arab Emirates is one of those countries that was apparently targeting Jared Kushner, at least according to "The Washington Post," targeting him for manipulation.

How does this meeting fit into that and could this have put other Trump associates potentially at risk?

HIMES: Yes, I think there's at least two problems here.

And then step back a second here. As you might imagine, every country on the planet when the United States is going to elect a new president is very interested in getting to know the new president and the new president's people, or at least the president who may be president. That's not unusual.

Where it gets problematic is when these contacts are not disclosed. And many of these contacts, starting with Jared Kushner and straight on through to Michael Flynn and others, were not disclosed.

[18:20:00]

If they were not disclosed, why not? If it was innocent, why not be opened about what happened? That's a problem. And then, of course, this is one that -- this wasn't just meeting with the Swedish Red Cross delegation. This was a Russian. The Seychelles meeting anyway was a Russian

oligarch with connections to Vladimir Putin, and now maybe this sort of shadowy individual who seems to be of interest to Bob Mueller. So, again, this does not feel like a visit to friendly European girl scout group. There's more going on here.

And I think it's important for Bob Mueller to explore what that is.

BLITZER: There's a report out there now, Congressman, that Hope Hicks, the former communications director at the White House, longtime aide to the president who resigned last week, in questioning with you, that Hope Hicks said that one of her e-mail accounts was hacked. What can you tell us about that?

HIMES: Yes, I hate to be -- I hate to do this, Wolf, but not much.

There was a damaging leak out of the committee about her admission that I guess she had told white lies. I was very disturbed by that, because, quite frankly, I'm pretty -- I'm 100 percent sure there's nobody in this city who hasn't told white lies on behalf of their boss.

And I'm pretty sure there's no one on the planet who hasn't done that. And I think that got blown into a story that was not quite right, as a guy who was in the room.

So, again, in the spirit of trying to both preserve the security of our investigation and not maybe feed the rumor mill, I think I will probably just decline to comment on that.

BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we're the have much more on the legal and the political consequences of Stormy Daniels' new lawsuit against President Trump, as both sides trade new and fiercely worded accusations.

And what could all of this mean for the first lady, Melania Trump, and her relationship with the president?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:26:27]

BLITZER: We're back with breaking news.

The lawyer for Stormy Daniels tells CNN that the president's attorney has made new threats against his client, trying to prevent her from speaking out about her alleged affair with Mr. Trump, this as Daniels just filed a new lawsuit declaring a hush money deal she originally agreed to is invalid.

Tonight, the White House is trying to defuse this re-exploding scandal. But where is the first lady in the middle of all of this? Let's bring in our White House reporter, Kate Bennett.

Kate, this can't be a particularly easy time for the first lady. How is she handling this?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: She's handling it the way she has been, which is to be very quiet about it, not release a statement. She isn't discussing any of the scandals.

However, it seemed like things were going well for the president and first lady. We saw her this week with the Netanyahus, greeting them, sitting for an official meeting in the Oval Office. It seemed as though she was sort of back on track in terms of her duties. This is just two weeks of course after the news broke about a Playboy playmate, an alleged affair, when she did not want to be seen boarding Marine One, going to Andrews Air Force Base with the president.

That was a last-minute change of plans. She took a separate motorcade. Her office said it was a scheduling issue. However, it was another difficult thing for her with these headlines.

They went to Parkland, they visited students that day. It seemed as though they were getting along quite well. By the end of the evening, they were spotted at Mar-a-Lago in the ballroom sort of chatting together.

Again, it seemed as though things were getting back on track. But as with most things in this White House, these headlines keep coming back up and sucking the oxygen out of the air. And again it must be a very difficult and sort of humiliating time for the first lady.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly is. More than a year into the administration, she's still a relative mystery to most of us.

BENNETT: Sure. We don't know that much about her. This isn't a first lady we hear from a lot. She hasn't laid out her formal platform just yet.

In fact, she just spoke for the first time publicly, giving public remarks just a couple weeks ago to the wives of the governors who were in town in Washington. Take a listen. She talked about gun control.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I have heartened to see children across the country using their voices to speak out and try to create change. They're our future and they deserve a voice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BENNETT: I mean, again, this is a first lady who has not gotten involved on some of these policy issues. We see her again talking about opioids last week, again with gun control and students. She's trying to make a voice for herself. But, again, when everyone has the Stormy Daniels top of mind, it's a very delicate and I'm sure difficult situation. BLITZER: What's ahead for the first lady?

BENNETT: Well, from what I hear, she's really invested in a few events coming up soon in a few weeks.

One being the Easter egg roll. It will be her second as first lady. And then the first state dinner of the Trump administration, I hear she's actively involved in planning and hosting and getting that under way.

So, she's obviously focusing there.

BLITZER: For the visiting president of France.

BENNETT: Exactly.

BLITZER: OK. Thanks very much. Good reporting from Kate Bennett.

Just ahead, could the payment by the president's lawyer to porn star Stormy Daniels lead to legal trouble?

Plus, a former Russian spy poisoned in Britain and now near death. Tonight, we're learning what was used on him and his daughter.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news. We've just received a copy of the arbitration agreement that supposedly stops the porn star Stormy Daniels from talking about her alleged affair with President Trump and an alleged payoff, as well.

[18:34:24] Let's dig deeper with our reporters and our analysts. And Jeffrey Toobin, you have gone through this arbitration agreement. In simple terms --

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: OK.

BLITZER: -- explain what's going on.

TOOBIN: This has gotten complicated pretty quickly, but I'll do my best.

All right. We know that in October of 2016 there was an agreement, a contract between Stormy Daniels and people purporting to represent the president or then-candidate Trump, giving her 100,000 -- $130,000 in return for her silence.

BLITZER: This is a month before the election.

TOOBIN: Correct. That agreement -- now there's a dispute about whether it was ever signed by the president and whether it's valid, but the agreement itself says any disputes about what's in this contract go to arbitration. You can't go to court. You have to go to an arbitrator.

It looks like the lawyer for Michael Cohen, who represents the president, went to an arbitrator and got an order just last week, got an order telling Stormy Daniels, "You can't talk about this stuff at all." And that's the order. And I just want to read a -- read one line from it. We're going to put it up on the screen.

"Pending further determination Ms. Peterson" -- that's Stormy Daniels's real name [SIC] -- "is precluded from disclosing, or disclosing or inducing, or promoting or actively inspiring anyone to disclose confidential information as defined in the confidential settlement agreement."

In other words, while this dispute is pending, according to this arbitration agreement, she can't talk about her relationship with Donald Trump. That's what the arbitration order says.

However, her lawyer is saying this arbitration order is not valid, because the contract is not valid because Donald Trump never signed the contract. So there is no valid contract. So that's the core of the -- that's the core of the disagreement.

BLITZER: Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, Jeffrey, today said the president won the arbitration. So basically, it's been resolved. Is she right?

TOOBIN: Well, she -- he did win the arbitration, except her other position is he doesn't know anything about this.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And --

TOOBIN: So it's a somewhat contradictory position. Yes. I'm sorry.

COLLINS: They've gone from Sarah Sanders said she's had conversations with the president about this today. She did admit to that. She said that she doesn't -- that she is not aware that he was aware of that $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels from Michael Cohen.

But then she said that he won the arbitration between the two of them, which would mean he would have to be aware of the payment.

So there are not a lot of clear messages coming from the White House. They're saying that the president has addressed this. He's denied these allegations. He actually hasn't. We haven't heard from the president on this. His lawyer, Michael Cohen, his private attorney, has denied it, denied that he had an affair with Stormy Daniels. But it's completely unclear, so many mixed messages coming out of the White House regarding this.

BLITZER: And the reason it's significant is potentially if it was what they called an in-kind campaign contribution only days before the election that wasn't reported to the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, potentially that's a crime.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Potentially, yes. I think that's going to be a tough argument to make. But the argument being that, because it was so close to the end of the 2016 campaign that that $130,000, if Michael Cohen wasn't doing it at the behest of President Trump, then-candidate Trump, that we don't know yet if that was the case. But this is what is being discussed right now, then that would have been essentially done specifically to help his campaign. Can I make one point about what Jeffrey was just reporting out?

In the arbitration agreement, when it said that she's prevented from inducing anyone to disclose, that makes me think immediately of the Jimmy Kimmel situation, where she went on TV and gave the knowing look, even though she didn't speak about whatever she may or may not have known. And it seems to me that that's what these lawyers want to try to prevent.

TOOBIN: Well, they want to shut her up, period. I mean, they want to shut her up personally. They want to shut her up from giving information to other people.

But this still doesn't address the weirdest part of the whole story, at least in my opinion, which is Michael Cohen, the lawyer, put up his own money to silence this woman? I am -- you know, I'm familiar with a lot of lawyers. I'm familiar with a lot of --

BLITZER: He said he facilitated the payment.

TOOBIN: He said he facilitated the payment, which is sort of an odd verb. Does that mean it was his own money? Whose money was it and under what circumstances? And if it was someone else's money, it does seem like a campaign contribution, because it was right before the election.

COLLINS: Yes. His statements on this have been so confusing. Because he initially said he made the payment. But then he said that the president was not aware of the payment. But then it was reported that he was complaining that he had not been reimbursed for the payment yet by the president. And it was also reported that he had trouble reaching the president in those last few days before the election when he missed those two payment deadlines. So several mixed messages coming from him, too.

BLITZER: Rebecca, is Michael Cohen helping or hurting the president right now?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, by talking about this publicly, probably not helping the president. He clearly thought he was helping the president when he made this agreement in the first place, Wolf, especially given the timing, one month before election day. They didn't want this to be in the news.

But certainly, there is some -- there's a great deal, a lack of clarity when it comes to where this money came from, and that's important. Because there -- it really strains credulity that Michael Cohen would have made a $130,000 payment of his own money without any knowledge by the president. He was incredibly close to the president, was a key part of his operation for many years. To think that he was just freelancing on something as big as this, really kind of unbelievable.

[18:40:03] BLITZER: Here's what I wonder. And just from a tax perspective, the $130,000, did Michael Cohen declare that on his 2016 income tax as a business expense? And did Stormy Daniels declare that as income and pay tax on it when she got the $130,000? The IRS could be looking into both of those angles.

TOOBIN: Let me answer your question directly. Beats the hell out of me. I don't know.

I mean, the whole circumstances here are so murky. I mean, the idea of a lawyer, from his own pocket, paying a settlement -- first of all, it's not even ethical to represent a client in a negotiation without talking to the client about what the negotiation is about. I mean, so the idea that --

BLITZER: He set up an LLC in Delaware to facilitate the payment.

TOOBIN: Right. It was a pretty elaborate setup.

BLITZER: He says that money came out of his pocket.

TOOBIN: Well, he -- he suggested that, but then he said he facilitated it. It's very unclear what he means by he facilitated the payment and whose money that ultimately was or whether he expected to be reimbursed, which he was apparently complaining about.

All the circumstances here are very murky.

And you know, the big overarching question is does anyone care at this point? Is anyone surprised that the president was involved with a porn star? I leave that to my fellow panelists.

BLITZER: Let me ask David. Should Republicans be shocked by any of this?

SWERDLICK: They should be shocked, but they don't appear to be. Look, on inauguration day -- I keep saying this over and over again -- President Trump was at 44, 45 percent. Right now he's at 40, 41 percent. He has lost a marginal amount of support among the overall electorate and among some Republicans, but not that much.

This is priced in, as you're saying, with Trump. His voters priced this in when they voted for him after they knew about the "Access Hollywood" tape.

BLITZER: And he's going to at some point -- and I want to discuss this with you, Kaitlan, when we come back. At some point the president is going to be directly questioned about this at an opportunity, and his words will be very significant.

Let's take a quick break. Much more on the Stormy Daniels lawsuit right right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:46:46] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. There's more breaking news, this time coming in from "The New York Times."

And I want Jeffrey Toobin to react to this. "The New York Times" reporting, the headline, Trump spoke to witnesses about matters they discussed with special counsel. The lead, the special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters.

Explain to our viewers why that potentially is inappropriate.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Ii think the key word you used is inappropriate. It's not necessarily illegal. But one of the things witnesses are always instructed to do -- particularly witnesses in a superior position to other witnesses -- don't talk to them about their testimony, don't put yourself in a position where you could be accused of trying to shape their testimony.

Don't say anything that could lead to newspaper stories like the one you just read, because once witnesses go before the grand jury or go to office interview, they are almost always asked, did anyone talk to you about your testimony? Did the president talk to you about your testimony?

It at a minimum looks bad if he did. And potentially, if there was some corrupt intent to shape that testimony, it could be obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, you're our White House reporter. I'll read another line or two from the article in one episode the president told the aide, White House counsel Don McGahn should issue a statement denying 'The New York Times" article in January. The article said that Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller and Mr. McGahn never released a statement and had to remind the president that he asked him to see that Mr. Mueller was discussed.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Exactly. So, he's asking him to issue a statement denying something that really happened. And I want to read the other episode that "The New York Times" is referring to here. It says, according to "The New York Times", that the president asked former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus how his interview with the special counsel investigator went and whether they had been nice. And they're attributing that two people familiar.

And it just goes to show the president is very interested, even though they've been dismissive and they believe that this investigation is wrapping up, he's clearly very interested in what these investigators and what the special counsel wants to know about him, to the fact where he's asking his former chief of staff what happened in that interview. And I don't even have a law degree. I know that's not something you're supposed to do.

BLITZER: Let me read the other line, Jeffrey, David, Rebecca, I'd like you to weigh in. This is from "The New York Times". Legal experts said Mr. Trump's contact with the men most likely did not rise to the level of witness tampering, but witnesses and lawyers who learned about the conversations viewed them as potentially a problem and shared them with Mr. Mueller.

TOOBIN: Exactly. This is the kind of thing that you're never supposed to do in the course of a criminal investigation. You're never supposed to sort of ask witnesses about their testimony, help them prepare for their testimony. This is supposed to be left to the lawyers. It's not illegal if that's all you're doing, but it leads to embarrassment like stories like this.

[18:50:03] REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: And at a time when the president is already facing questions about an investigation into potential obstruction of justice by firing Comey, this is another piece of that potentially. Is he trying to obstruct this ongoing investigation? And so, this could not just be embarrassing but very serious.

BLITZER: Because remember, at the heart -- at least one of the elements of the Mueller investigation is whether there was any obstruction of justice effort on the part of the president or others.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. I agree with Rebecca. I mean, to Jeffrey's point, it may not be illegal but it could be a brick in the wall in terms of special counsel trying to get an indictment related to obstruction of justice. It also points to the fact that, look, everybody works in the White House, including White House counsel, as far as I know, it takes an oath of office to the Constitution. You're at a minimum, you know, hinting to someone that maybe their loyalty is not to the constitution but individually to the president.

COLLINS: Well, it also speaks to the larger fact that president is ignoring the advice of his lawyers clearly because they would certainly advice him not to ask questions like this, and it also goes to as far as him sitting down with the special counsel's investigators himself. We know they expressed some interest in that. There has been conversations about that.

The president initially said he would certainly look forward to sitting down with his lawyers later backtracked and said a decision had not been made on that. But it certainly shows how the president thinks he's steering the ship himself and not his lawyers.

BLITZER: You were going to say.

TOOBIN: Well, I just think, you know, one of -- as a prosecutor, one of the things you always ask a witness is did you discuss your testimony with anyone? And you ask because you want to learn precisely the kind of thing that is in this story, whether that anyone, particularly someone who is your superior is trying to stir you in a particular direction.

BLITZER: Maggie Haberman who co-wrote this article of "The New York Times" is joining us on the phone right now. So, Maggie, give us your sense. You've done a lot of reporting on

this. What stands out as potentially inappropriate behavior by the president?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST (via telephone): Look, we spoke to legal experts who said they do not believe this was likely rise to the level of witness tampering, but it certainly against best practices that president has been advised of by his lawyers, which is, you know, you don't discuss this kind of thing. You don't discuss appearances by witnesses or how things went with investigators when it is an investigation that relates to you or which you might know the president insisted he's not under investigation, but we know he is.

And we know that obstruction one of justice is one of the issues that Robert Mueller team is looking at. One instance which involved Reince Priebus was fairly minor and fairly quick in the sense that the president --

BLITZER: Go ahead.

HABERMAN: Sorry -- the president raised the issue of the appearance that Priebus had made before Mueller's investigators and they were denied. And Priebus according to our sources said they were professional, the president tried to ask again about did they talk about what I'm seeing in the news or something to that effect. And Priebus sort of declined to get into it. Just said it's something to the effect of it's what you would expect, and then directed the conversation elsewhere.

John Kelly was present for that. Not clear whether he tried to get the president to move off of it or not. The second incident with Don McGahn, the White House counsel is more problematic. It came in response to a story Mike Schmidt and I had published about the president speaking to dismiss Mueller last year via McGahn.

The president had wanted McGahn to put out a statement saying that had not happened. McGahn would not do that. McGahn had to remind the president this is what he had asked him to do last year. And our understanding is McGahn has told Mueller's investigators that. That one gets more detailed and is a little more significant.

BLITZER: And it certainly sounds like that.

Maggie, what does it tell you the president seems to be ignoring advice of his attorneys in raising these kinds of questions with witnesses?

HABERMAN: Look, I mean that we can't climb into his head though I don't want to project too far out. Certainly, it is unwise. We obviously know the Russian investigation is very much top of mind for him. Whether he is actively trying to sort of seek specific information or just get a sensor if this is on his brain, at least in the Priebus incident one way to look at it. With McGahn I think it gets into ha different area which is trying to get McGahn to deliver a statement that according to what McGahn told Mueller's investigators is contrary to the truth. And I think that potentially much more problematic. But again, only

the president knows what he knows. We don't know what he is aware of what may have taken place or what might not have taken place so I don't want to speculate too much about what he's afraid of possibly taking place. Some of this he's used, you know, this is how he functions.

[18:50:02] This is how he operates. When something is consuming him, he focuses on it.

BLITZER: How do you think, Maggie, the recent high profile departures from the White House are affecting the president in this area?

HABERMAN: Look, I don't think it relates to what he's asking people about Russia. I mean, I do think that certainly among the people who are leaving, there are people who probably have been asked by him about issues or could have been who could have heard him talk about Russia. And those taking interviews with Robert Mueller's office, or have had them already, every day remaining there is more legal exposure potentially that you just don't want.

But I think the president has always believed that he knows best and he has viewed lawyers' advice over the years as sort of a means to an end on business deals, or means to keeping yourself out of trouble in a civil suit. This is entirely different order of magnitude that he's used to.

BLITZER: These two incidents you report "New York Times" in the Maggie happened months ago. Any indication things have changed since then?

HABERMAN: Not particularly. But we don't know of any specifics. I don't think the president changes who he is. And McGahn incident was not that long ago. It was a couple of weeks ago.

BLITZER: What's the latest you are hearing I wonder about the possibility that if called by Robert Mueller to answer questions, the president will do so?

HABERMAN: I believe that people on the president's team are very mindful that having the president submit to sort of an open-ended interview with Robert Mueller is a real problem. And something they are hoping to avoid, whether they will throw down the gauntlet and force him to subpoena the president, you know, remains to be seen. I think they want to be respectful of the process and continue that way as long as they can.

BLITZER: Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times," great reporting. Thanks so much for joining us.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's get an analysis from our panel.

Jeffrey Toobin, what do you think? TOOBIN: Well, I think Maggie is right violation of best practices at

best and seriously problematic especially -- at worse, particularly the conversation with Don McGahn, because if you were to put the most sinister cast on it, you would say the president is telling White House counsel to go out in public and lie about a matter that is under criminal investigation. That's potentially very serious. Now, Don McGahn apparently had the good sense to not go out in public and make a statement about this. But it does indicate that, you know, the president has a somewhat free wheeling approach to truth on his own, and may on behalf of others as well.

BLITZER: Yes, it's significant moment.

Go ahead, David.

SWERDLICK: The only thing I would add I think this is perilous moment for the White House in terms of all the people that are now on the outside. I have no idea whose Maggie sources are, she's the best in the business. But when you have all the situation with chaos, that no things that have happened recently in the White House, that are now on the outside, this is additional exposure to them if they have been crossing the line or not been using best practices.

BLITZER: You know this is going to rattle the president coming from Maggie Haberman in this hometown newspaper.

COLLINS: Well, it goes to show exactly. And goes to show how consumed the president is by the Russian investigation even though the White House argues that he's not. They believe it's wrapping up. It is definitely something that contributes to his increasingly isolated, angry, volatile mood that he's had in the White House.

We continue to see him go after the Attorney General Jeff Sessions just last week complaining after Jeff Sessions went to dinner with the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who the president famously disliked. So, it truly shows what the president is so angry about, why he's so angry with Jeff Sessions who recused himself from overseeing this Russia investigation and the president wanted Jeff Sessions to be in that position, to be able to protect him from things like this. And it shows increasing attention and focus on this investigation.

BLITZER: He's private dinner, by the way, right now, Rebecca, I hear in Washington, Georgetown, home of a supporters, former White House counsel for George H.W. Bush and other supporters of the president. He doesn't do that very often, leave the White House and head to private dinner that's not at his hotel here in Washington.

BERG: Right. That is unusual. Also Kaitlan's reporting shows president of America-first policy that supports the president will be there. So you can expect robust political discussion to go on this evening. But with this cloud hanging over the president's head, all of the staff related chaos, Stormy Daniels and of course the Russian investigation, the president you would imagine would be a little bit distracted by those things happening.

BLITZER: Lots going on. We're going to continue to follow it here on CNN.

Important programming note for our viewers. The attorney for Stormy Daniels will be a guest on "ANDERSON COOPER 360" later tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, an hour from now.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.