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Trump Lawyers Got Restraining Order to Quiet Stormy Daniels; Confusion in White House Over Tariff Rollout; NYT: Trump Asked McGahn, Priebus About Special Counsel Interviews; Soon: Lewandowski Testifies Again Before House Intel Committee; Dems: Trump Associate May Have Misled Panel Over Seychelles Meeting. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Today the White House is juggling tariffs and porn stars, just as the framers intended.

Good morning, everyone. John Berman here this morning. White House officials are not sure if President Trump knew his lawyer was paying off a porn star. They're also not sure if the president is signing new tariffs today. No one seems sure who gets hit by those tariffs. And members of his own party are questioning both the wisdom of the tariffs and the veracity of the claims about the porn star. Again, just as the framers intended.

The president may sign the controversial new tariffs today or he may not. It depends who you ask inside the White House. One aide claims they're not really sure if the policy is even finished. And very shortly the president could make his first public comments since news that his lawyer got a restraining order against Stormy Daniels and his press secretary essentially admitted there was some sort of agreement between President Trump and the adult film actress.

We learned just moments ago that the president is very unhappy with how that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders handled this.

So let's start with that and Abby Phillip live at the White House this morning.

Abby, what have you learned?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John. A lot going on here as you just mentioned. But this saga with Stormy Daniels seems to be the one thing that the White House can't dodge. President Trump according to a source close to the White House who spoke to CNN's Jim Acosta is not very happy with how Sarah Sanders handled this whole situation during the press briefing room session yesterday. And it's partly because of what she did say this time around that may have opened the floodgates for some new inquiries about the president's involvement in this whole thing.

According to this source, you know, Sarah Sanders' comments were essentially putting the Stormy Daniels storyline on steroids yesterday. What she talked about was this issue of arbitration. She acknowledged for the first time, we believe, based on what the White House said, that the president is a party to some kind of legal agreement involving Stormy Daniels and that the president is directly involved in this whole thing.

Listen to what she had to say yesterday.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said that there's arbitration that's already been won? By whom and when?

SANDERS: By the president's personal attorneys. And for details on that, I would refer you to them.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But you're aware of them. So what more can you share with us?

SANDERS: I can share that the arbitration was won in the president's favor.


PHILLIP: "In the president's favor" is really the big part of that whole exchange. It's critically important because for a long time the White House had said that the president denies this, that he had no knowledge of anything his lawyer was doing on his behalf when it comes to Stormy Daniels. Now it seems very much that there was a case that he is at the center of, that the White House now acknowledges exists -- John.

BERMAN: Yes. That was a very interesting if not a bit strange acknowledgment, Abby. We're going to talk much more on that in a second. Stick around. Because we need to come back to you for a moment and other news.

First, though, I want to get more on the Stormy Daniels situation. CNN's M.J. Lee joins me now.

Where are we today, M.J.?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, John, the simple question that the White House has yet to answer is what did President Trump know and when. And I just want to point out two things in particular that are particularly problematic for the White House, some of which Abby already alluded to. The first is Sarah Sanders' statement yesterday that this case has already been won in arbitration. And I'm going to return to that in a little bit.

The second thing that she said was that when she was asked if President Trump was aware of the payment that Michael Cohen made to Stormy Daniels -- this is $130,000 that he set up to have wired to her lawyer in October of 2016 -- her answer was, "Not that I'm aware of." This was not a no. And as you can imagine, Stormy Daniels's lawyer has a lot to say about everything that Sarah Sanders said at the White House briefing room yesterday. First and foremost, he is very strongly rejecting the idea that

Michael Cohen acted on his own, essentially that he didn't consult with President Trump when he had this payment made to Stormy Daniels and that he acted essentially without Trump's knowledge.

Take a listen to what he had to say to Anderson Cooper last night.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: The idea that somehow President Trump didn't know anything about this, it is patently absurd.


LEE: And now coming back to this arbitration that Sarah Sanders says was won in Trump's favor, she appears to be -- and this is according to Stormy Daniels' lawyer, she appears to be talking about this temporary restraining ordered that a private issued against Stormy Daniels last month on behalf of Essential Consultants.

[09:05:03] Now this is the private company, if you remember, John, that Michael Cohen has set up back in October of 2016 so that he could make this payment, the $130,000. And Stormy's lawyer is now saying that they didn't even know about this arbitration, that they weren't even given a heads up about this. And this essentially, he says, is one of the many times in which Michael Cohen tried to silence Stormy Daniels.

I just want to play a different sound bite from last night on what he had to say about that.


AVENATTI: And I want to be really clear about this. All in an effort to keep this matter under wraps, keep it out of public view, hide the facts and silence my client. There's a pattern and practice that is governed the way that my client has been dealt with by Mr. Cohen and President Trump for months.

And that pattern and practice, Anderson, has continued up until even a few hours ago.


LEE: Now, John, keep in mind this lawyer is saying that they have not yet shared everything that they have with the public, meaning more information could soon be coming to light.

BERMAN: All right, M.J., very interesting. Thanks for laying that all out for us. I appreciate it.

Joining me now CNN political analysts Molly Ball, Josh Dawsey and Rachel Bade.

And, guys, to me, this story is in a different place today for three reasons. Number one, the White House response right there which was strange. Number two, because you now have this lawyer for Stormy Daniels who is all in and seems like he is, you know, girding for this fight and excited for it. And number three, you're beginning to see Congress opine on the matter which opens up a whole different can of worms.

Let's take all three issues one at a time.

Josh, first to you. You cover the White House. I'm going to use the word wicked for the second time in two days here. You know, Sarah Sanders' response was wicked weird yesterday when she mentioned the fact that this arbitration thing was going on.

Do you have a sense covering the White House why she did that and what's the fallout today?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I'm not exactly sure what Sanders is supposed to say. The president and his lawyer gave $130,000 to an adult film star just before an election. The story cannot come straight for several weeks. At first they deny the payment, then they said they made it through the LLC, now there's arbitration.

The White House has dodged these questions repeatedly, have said literally nothing other than to say we've already handled it even though they haven't. And we've, you know, repeatedly sought answers on what really happened here. I think Sarah Sanders yesterday was trying to say that the president and his lawyer had won in a court in California. I'm not sure if that made it better. But at the same I don't really know how else to defend this at the podium. What is a better recourse for her?

BERMAN: Well, the issue is, it appears to be the truth, it appears to be truth, that the president is somehow involved in this lawsuit, in this legal action. The problem with the truth is it would make the president more connected to this issue than the White House has said to this point.

DAWSEY: Right.

BERMAN: Molly Ball, Mark Sanford, congressman from South Carolina, former governor from South Carolina. Yes, you know, an interesting figure to be commenting on potential scandal as lovers of history and hiking on the Appalachian trail will remember, yet his comment. Molly, is fascinating on this.

I want to read this to you. "Hush money is a big deal, particularly if it's not ancient history. We're talking about a payment in October of 2016. That's not a long time ago. We're talking about money that was exchanged in the midst of a presidential campaign. I think that's problematic and I think that needs to be viewed for what it is."

I mean, again, this is Mark Sanford. But still, a Republican congressman is now saying, you know what, there are legitimate questions about this. MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we'll see if any other

Republicans decide to take that line versus the sort of pretend this doesn't exist act that most of them have been doing. Sanford has been more openly critical of Trump than very many others in the Republican Congress, in both the House and the Senate. But I think that what he's saying has some merit in that this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously, and it is going to be, in political terms, harder and harder for Republicans to not deal with, not only this, but the whole host of scandals and potential scandals and issues that have ensnared the president and that they have tried to stay away from.

They've tried to keep their distance as much as possible and pretend that they're just, you know, solely focused on tax policy and that kind of thing. And they just sort of don't see the fires enveloping the White House. And then you have someone like Mark Sanford stepping forward and saying, you guys, this is a real thing. This is an issue for a variety of reasons.

BERMAN: Yes, look, either the president is telling the truth or Stephanie Clifford, AKA Stormy Daniels, are telling the truth. One is, you know, they're mutually exclusive. One has to be right. The other has to be wrong. The American people at a certain point deserve to know what's going on here.

And Rachel, this brings me to my third point. There is this lawyer, Mike Avenatti right now who's working on behalf of Stephanie Clifford, Stormy Daniels, he seems to be pushing this issue. We saw him on Anderson last night.

[09:10:03] He doesn't seem to be about to give this up. And he's the kind of figure you can envision being a consistent thorn in the White House side here.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Looks like they're definitely in for the long haul here. There was a question posed to him at one point about, you know, if she received more money, would this change her interest in coming forward and talking about this. And he said no, the cat is out of the bag, it's far too gone for that. We are moving on and just want the truth to get out there.

I want to get back to the congressional angle that you just were asking about.


BADE: Because if this was a Democratic president, you know that the Republican Congress would be scheduling hearings right now and getting their pens ready to sign subpoenas and haul people in for questioning. But, Republicans, Mark Sanford, he really is an anomaly. I was talking to a Republican, a very senior Republican on the Hill yesterday who was upset that he had just gone on TV to talk about tariffs and they had asked him about Stormy Daniels, and he was like, I specifically asked the producers that I didn't -- told them I didn't want to talk about there, and they asked me anyway, which of course they're going to do. But that just shows you Republicans are going to run for the hills on

this. For how long they can actually do this, it's clear there's going to be more and more headlines on this. And at some point, you know, Democrats are really going to be pushing them to take this up.

BERMAN: All right. Guys, stick around. We're going to come back to you in just a moment. First, though, I want to go back to Abby Phillip at the White House. The other story today is these tariffs. What will happen with them, will they be signed today, who are they for and what are they on? What's the status now, Abby?

PHILLIP: Still a lot of confusion out of this White House about what exactly is happening today on tariffs. We know over the last 24 hours there has been a back and forth from the White House about whether in fact there will be an event today in which President Trump will sign and make these tariffs officials. We had heard from some sources -- White House sources yesterday afternoon that they were looking at 3:30 p.m. this -- today for the president to sign something.

But then another aide then later said actually it's canceled. And they went back and forth throughout the night until finally this morning, President Trump goes out on Twitter and tweets himself and says there's something happening today at 3:30 p.m. on tariffs. It's still not clear based on the president's tweet what exactly that means. But he does offer one hint about what might be holding this whole thing up.

He said, "While we need to protect the steel and aluminum industries, we need to show great flexibility and cooperation to those who are real friends and treat us fairly on both trade and the military." That is code for Mexico and China. Two countries who have asked to be excluded from the tariffs and who might be in fact receiving some kind of waiver.

But there are legal technicalities about how those waivers are put into place and whether or not that can be done in time for the president to sign something at 3:30. You know, the White House had already brought steel and aluminum workers to Washington to be here for some kind of event. They might still hold it. But at the same time they have to work out the legalities of whether they can exclude our two allies to the north and the south from these tariffs that they believe will be very damaging. And it's not clear that President Trump will sign anything that has legal power this afternoon.

BERMAN: Possible exclusions for Canada and Mexico. All of this new information from the White House clears up exactly nothing.

Abby Phillip, thank you very much.

My panel back with me now. Josh, you have some of your own reporting, insight from lawmakers who have been trying to talk the president out of doing this. What have you heard?

DAWSEY: Sure. There's a fierce tug of war in the building right now over tariffs. You have lawmakers from Speaker Paul Ryan to the Freedom Caucus, to Defense officials, Jim Mattis, the Defense secretary, Rex Tillerson, everyone is expressing some consternation over these tariffs. But so far the president has been unmoved. He has said to lawmakers that he appreciates their concerns on tariffs, but he wants to go forward.

In the words of the president to one of those, he thinks America is getting, quote-unquote, "screwed." He thinks these countries are taking advantage of the United States. And he really wants to sign something. But as we saw last week, the president made a declaration and his lawyers had not put together a package yet. There were no -- there was nothing to sign. And as Abby just reported from the lawn of the White House, we've heard the same thing over the past 24 hours.

People saying oh, there's going to be an event tomorrow, it could be a formal declaration, it could be actual tariffs, it could be symbolic. As of 8:30 this morning, before I came up set, I still am not sure what's going to happen. And people that I've talked to in the White House aren't exactly sure what's going to happen.

BERMAN: I think since 8:30 it's changed six times, Josh.

DAWSEY: Right.

BERMAN: I'm not sure you've missed anything.

Molly, this notion of possible exemptions for Canada and Mexico here in the 11th hour, it's not like this is a small thing. This is the whole thing. You're talking about exempting perhaps the largest single exporter of steel and aluminum to the United States, that's Canada. It gives you the sense that this hasn't been well thought out from the beginning if they're only going to remove these large exporters of steel and aluminum to the United States at the very last minute and couple that with the idea they don't even know when or if the announcement will take place. You know, it sends signals that maybe there is that word again -- some chaos.

[09:15:00] BALL: I am shocked that you would suggest that this president has not fully thought through every period and comma of the details of a policy issue. But yes, I mean, I have a piece in the new issue of "Time" magazine about how the real trade war is inside the White House. More than that, it's within Trump himself.

He's got two competing impulses warring for his psyche right now. On the one hand, he does strongly believe that America has been taken advantage of. It's one of his few fixed positions that he's held for decades, and it was a big part of his campaign rhetoric.

On the other hand, he strongly wants to please the people around him and particularly keep the Republican Party happy. And when he has been pulled between those two instincts in the past, when he has, you know, one instinct on policy that might go against what Republicans generally want.

And then on the other side he's got all these Republicans in his ear and he wants to impress them and keep them happy, he has almost always come down on the side of his party. He has almost always come down on side of the conservative Republicans, who've managed to talk him off the ledge and get him to do what they want.

And so, you see him vacillating because he is the subject of this intense pressure campaign primarily from his own party.

BERMAN: Rachel, very quickly 107 Republicans have signed a letter telling him not to do the things he's threatened to do. Of course, these 107 Republicans, if they really cared about this, could do something novel. They could pass a law. You know, Congress has the power to stop this. There's no sign he'll do that, is there?

BADE: No. It would be an extremely difficult uphill battle because you need two-thirds of both chambers, which means some Democrat to basically stop these terrorists from going in place. That's not to mention you would need every single Republican to vote for something like this.

And you know, Mark meadows was talking in the hallway. We were asking him could the House or Senate potentially take away the White House's trade promotion authority, which they gave to President Obama, which allows him to do things like this.

The presidents to slap tariffs on things if they want to. They technically could take that away, but he said Republicans voting against the president like that, that would be a very difficult move and he said there's probably zero chance that would happen.

BERMAN: This letter is the equivalent of a sad face emoji. Molly Ball, Josh Dawsey, Rachael Bade, thanks very much for being with us. I appreciate it.

President Trump reportedly wants to know if the special counsel's investigators are being nice so he's asking key witnesses. His former chief of staff, Reince Priebus says it's legal, but a secret meeting just before the inauguration between Russians and people with ties to President Trump, was this away to establish a back channel with Russia?



BERMAN: "The New York Times" reporting this morning that President Trump spoke to key witnesses in the Russia investigation about their conversations with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. CNN's justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, with more from Washington -- Jessica.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, John, the special counsel is aware of these conversations that the president had with these two key witnesses when he inquired about their interviews with Mueller's team. That's according to "The Times."

So, in one instance, the "Times" report that the president asked former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus if the special counsel's team had been, quote, "nice during his interview." The "Times" has told that Priebus responded to the president, "The investigators were courteous and professional," but then really didn't give any more specifics.

And in another instance, the president reportedly told an aide that White House Counsel Don McGahn should issue a statement denying what was a January article that reported that McGahn told investigators that the president once asked McGahn to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

And that McGahn actually later had to remind the president that he did, in fact, ask McGahn to oust Mueller, and the president pushed back against that account. Now, of course, it's not illegal for witnesses to talk about what they did tell investigators.

But really these inquiries by the president, they seemed to go against what his lawyers have been advising him and that's really to keep a low profile here to avoid the appearance of potentially interfering in any of this.

Of course, we know that Mueller's team is also probing possible obstruction of justice. It's interesting that the people who learned about these inquiries from the president, they reported them directly to the special counsel out of some concern.

And also, John, as it pertains to Mueller's probe, we know that Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for the Trump team, he will be in court in Virginia today. That's where he's facing a multitude of additional counts, that's separate from the counts he faces in Washington, D.C.

He was supposed to be in court last week. Of course, because of weather that was postponed. We will see Paul Manafort back in court today in is front of a Virginia judge. And of course, John, this comes just a few weeks after Rick Gates pleaded guilty, sort of leaving Paul Manafort to face these charges all on his own -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Jessica Schneider in Washington, thanks so much. More now, very shortly former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, will testify for a second time before the House Intelligence Committee. CNN's Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill with the latest on that -- Manu.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes. The first time that Corey Lewandowski came before this panel, he refused to answer questions about any topics after he left the Trump campaign in June of 2016, questions about what he discussed with now President Trump, and he would not disclose those discussions.

So, the question today, John, is whether or not Lewandowski will, in fact, answer those questions on those range of topics that particularly Democrats want answered. John, this could be one of the last major witnesses to come before the House Intelligence Committee as Republicans look to wrap up this investigation and Democrats say there's a lot more to look into that the Republicans are resisting at this point -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Very importantly, Manu, getting new details on this meeting that took place in the Seychelles very shortly before the inauguration. What's the deal here?

RAJU: Yes. This is a meeting that allegedly was sort of a back- channel discussion between the kremlin and the incoming Trump administration.

[09:25:06] Now, the participants in the meeting include Erik Prince, who is the funder of that security firm, Blackwater, as well as UAE officials and a Russian banker, who was there at the Seychelles.

Now we have learned that an additional person was at this meeting, George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman. He had ties with the Trump team. He is a Middle Eastern specialist.

When Erik Prince came before the House Intelligence Committee, John, he did not disclose that George Nader was part of one of these two meetings that Erik Prince had. Democrats are saying that if he did meet with George Nader, then perhaps he lied under oath to the House Intelligence Committee.

At the same time, we're now learning that Robert Mueller's team is looking into evidence about whether or not it was actually an effort to set up a back-channel discussion with Russia, and that's something that Prince denied under oath. That it was not a back-channel discussion to setup with the Trump team.

BERMAN: All right. Manu Raju for us on Capitol Hill. We will watch for Corey Lewandowski to arrive. Manu, thanks very much.

In the meantime, joining me CNN legal and national security analyst, former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa. Asha, we have two different stories here, right, one from the "New York Times" having to do with the special counsel investigation and the president asking about witnesses and then the "Washington Post" in Manu's reporting on the Seychelles.

Let's start with "the New York Times." There's nothing illegal about asking a witness after the fact what you were asked as part of an investigation, correct. People do that. Lawyers often do that more than people that might be the focus of an investigation. It does happen.

What gets interesting here is that the president's conversation with Don McGahn, the White House special counsel, where he asked Don McGahn to go issue a correction about a story that the president told Don McGahn to fire the special counsel. Don McGhan had to tell him, I can't do that because it's not true. Does this fit into that issue of a possible pattern of obstruction?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, so once again, Mueller is going to have to establish a corrupt intent that the president had when he fired James Comey, that he wanted this investigation, the Russia investigation to go away because he's trying to hide something or cover something up, for example.

So, yes, what he asked McGahn to do does fit into a pattern. Remember, John, he had gone previously to the heads of intelligence agencies, NSA and CIA to ask them to issue a statement that he's not under investigation, and he wanted Comey to do the same thing.

So, there's this kind of public narrative that he wants to create, and it is about idea to talk to people who are having interviews, even if it's not illegal to ask them about it. If you're under investigation, it does look like you might be trying to figure out what's going on, maybe shape your story accordingly, and that is not good for the president.

BERMAN: In Jessica's reporting, the special counsel knows about this, people close to the witnesses went back and told them right away that this is happening, so he knows. Let's talk about the Seychelles. "The Washington Post" version is that the special counsel is trying to establish that the Trump transition team was trying to establish a back channel to the kremlin. This was a week or so before the inauguration. What exactly would be problematic with having that back channel, Asha?

RANGAPPA: John, we only have one president at a time. So even during the transition period, to be having any kind of secretive negotiations, meetings with foreign governments that might affect policy, it actually can be illegal. It's definitely not normal protocol.

And if those negotiations, agreements, discussions included any kind of quid pro quo, that also could cross the line. So, this is very problematic. And I think directly to the Nader individual, this can be problematic for Erik Prince because, as Manu mentioned, what is coming out in reporting of what Nader is characterizing about that Seychelles meeting contradicts what Erik Prince told Congress.

Even if Congress doesn't want to push him on it, that is still potentially a crime if he lied and could be leverage that Mueller has over Erik Prince.

BERMAN: It would be well within the realm of Robert Mueller to actually go after Erik Prince if he, in fact, lied to Congress. You can start to see how this might all be connected. Asha Rangappa, great to have with you us. Thanks so much.

All right. Straight ahead, the Stormy Daniels saga featuring significant threats, according to her lawyer, to keep the adult film actress quiet. We'll speak to someone who actually had a chance to talk to Stormy Daniels and get a sense of where her mind has been and is now.

We're just moments away from the opening bell -- look at that, higher. There we go. It is opening higher as some of the concern eases right now about the president's position on tariffs. We'll stay on it.