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Pressure Intensifies in Russia Probe; Secretary of State Nominee Faces Confirmation Hearings; Syria Strike Decision Expected Soon; Former Trump Doorman Stands By (Unproven) Trump Love Child Story. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead and a barrage of news this afternoon, as President Trump is trying to make a decision about whether or not to launch a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria.

There's also breaking news about the Mueller investigation and its reach into the president's inner circle, including his Cabinet.

Plus, breaking news that some allies of President Trump are preparing for him to fire the man who supervises the Mueller investigation.

All while we're also learning more about President Trump's friend the tabloid media king and his alleged efforts to keep potentially damaging information about Donald Trump out of the newspaper.

We have a team of reporters to bring you the latest information right now, but I'm going to begin with CNN's Pamela Brown at the White House.

And, Pamela, Secretary of Defense Mattis is there right now at the White House, along with other members of President Trump's national security team. When do you think we're going to know the president's decision about potential use of force in Syria?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it's tough to say when a decision will be made. The president has sort of given conflicting messages on that.

He said today a decision on Syria would happen very soon at the beginning of the week. He said a major decision would happen within 48 hours. That time frame has passed.

And then on Twitter he seemingly backtracked from previous tweets, saying attack an Syria could be soon or not soon at all. As you recall, he tweeted yesterday missiles will be coming. The president appeared to get ahead of his own administration with that tweet yesterday. His Defense Secretary Mattis told members of Congress today no decision had been made to launch an attack on Syria and that while he believes the chemical attack occurred, they're still seeking evidence.

By contrast, British Prime Minister May said just moments ago, Jake, that it's highly likely the Assad regime carried out the attack in Syria. French President Macron went even farther, announcing that there's concrete proof chemical weapons or chlorine was used.

Sources tell my colleague Kevin Liptak that president is looking to launch a more muscular response than last year, when the Syrian air base continued to operate in the wake of the U.S. missile attack and chemical weapons attacks continued to happen.

As the president meets with his national security team, Jake, on the matter today, he also appears to be focused on the special counsel investigation with the president tweeting today: "If I wanted the fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the failing 'New York Times,' I would have fired him."

Now, sources tell us, Jake, that the president has often vented about firing Mueller over the last few months, only to be talked down by his own advisers. The president also tweeted today: "I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach with Robert Mueller, unlike the Clintons. I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my special counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process."

The president standing by his lawyer after his former adviser Steve Bannon said he had been receiving poor advice from his lawyers and that Ty Cobb should be fired -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown at the White House for us.

President Trump's pick to be America's top diplomat, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, was asked about a number of controversial decisions today during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, but nothing was so surprising as Pompeo's admission that he had been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

CNN's chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, joins me now.

So, Jim, this illustrates if nothing else just how many people in the president's inner circle are part of this probe.


And Mike Pompeo one of the closest to the president. His position as director of the CIA meant that he was often briefing the president on intelligence and that relationship. The president enjoyed those briefings, he liked the way Mike Pompeo delivered that intelligence and added to the relationship.

And then, of course, now he's been chosen as the secretary of state. Now we know that one of those closest, most senior advisers has been interviewed by the special counsel as part of the broader Russia investigation.

Have a listen.


MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: I spoke with special counsel Mueller, who interviewed me, requested an interview. I cooperated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was the subject of the conversation?

POMPEO: Senator, I'm not going to speak to that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the special counsel tell you not to speak about these things?

POMPEO: Senator, I have cooperated with multiple investigations. While the investigation continues, I think that's the appropriate way to approach it.


SCIUTTO: He clearly did not have a lot of appetite there, Jake, to talk about that, hiding behind to some degree, you might say, the secrecy of the investigation.

But it's clear that one subject likely for the special counsel we know has interest in is that meeting in the Oval Office where the president spoke to both Pompeo and DNI Dan Coats about influencing James Comey on the Michael Flynn investigation.

TAPPER: And, Jim, while this hearing's going on, there's a lot of speculation and concern amongst both Democrats and Republicans that any day President Trump might fire special counsel Mueller and/or his supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.


Did Director Pompeo address that today?

SCIUTTO: He did, indeed, and again a subject that he clearly did not want to talk about.

He was asked a number of questions on the Mueller investigation and the possibility of Rosenstein's firing. But he did give a straight and clear answer on this. Have a listen.


POMPEO: My instincts tell me no. My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America's senior diplomat will be more important at increased times of political domestic turmoil.


SCIUTTO: I should be clear. And the no he was talking about there was whether he would resign if the president were to fire Mueller or Rosenstein.

He said in very clear terms there, as you heard, Jake, no, he would not. He would stay in the administration.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

More breaking news at the White House now on the president's ongoing battle with his own Justice Department. We are now learning that the White House is preparing talking points to discredit Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

This comes just hours after Rosenstein met with President Trump earlier today, were talking, we're told, about routine business.

I want to bring in CNN's Sara Murray, who is breaking the story.

Sara, tell us about these talking points.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we haven't seen a completed version, because according to the sources we spoke to who are familiar with it, it sounds like they might be still in the preliminary phases.

It seems like the White House appears to be laying the groundwork that if the president does decide he wants to fire his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, which we know is something he's been considering in recent days, they could at least have made the case or have had their surrogates make that the case that the president has good reason to do so.

And we know that there are officials in the White House who have spoken to the president's allies, basically saying that they believe that Rod Rosenstein is conflicted when it comes to overseeing the Russia investigation, that he was a witness to the Comey firing because he helped prepare this memo that President Trump said he relied on in deciding to fire James Comey.

Now, there are some inside the White House who also believe that Rod Rosenstein and James Comey were good friends and that the reason that Rod Rosenstein had approved sort of the expansion of this investigation is because it's all designed as a rebuke for Comey's firing.

Now, it's worth noting that there are plenty of the president's allies who have already been out there publicly, not at the behest of the White House, encouraging President Trump to fire Rod Rosenstein. So far, he's not taken that step to do so. As for the White House, they declined to comment.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much for that breaking news.

Let's talk about this with my panel.

We have with us CNN legal analyst Laura Coates and former CIA and FBI official Phil Mudd.

Phil, it seems like the White House is doing everything it can to avoid President Trump firing Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, but they are also laying the groundwork in case he does it.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I mean, we haven't considered what happens -- people think it's a one-shot deal. You fire Rosenstein, you're done.

What does the attorney general do under that circumstance? What does the Congress do under that circumstance? I think one of the issues here is not just whether you take him out, but the same thing that happened when he fired Comey.

The second-order consequence, the chess pieces start to move. One final point. If you're the attorney general and your deputy gets fired without your consideration, you have got to figure out how can I stay here if I can't even run my own department? I think those are the kinds of questions the White House would have to answer.

TAPPER: If I were Rosenstein and I heard the news that the White House is preparing talking points, whether it's just prophylactically or because they have been told to get ready because it's going to happen, I would be concerned.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He should be, but, of course, everyone in the president's Cabinet should be concerned that their days are numbered at any given time.

And let's be clear what is happening here. The White House is so disgusted and disturbed by a smear campaign in the court of public opinion, they're going to prepare talking points of a smear campaign about somebody who leads a charge in the court of law.

Sounds very ironic and odd to me. But as Phil was talking about, you have this notion it is not going to stop if you suddenly derail or take out Rod Rosenstein. Mueller's team is actually, by farming out to the SDNY and...


TAPPER: The Southern District of New York.

COATES: Right. Or the New York attorney general's office, they have been able to farm out enough that this will actually function almost autonomously even if his oversight is somehow compromised.

And so it really is putting a grill cover in a hurricane on the grill. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I'm sure reflexively it makes him feel good.

TAPPER: You talk about the secondary effects. The secondary effect of President Trump firing James Comey, who we're going to be interviewing in a week, was Bob Mueller. And I don't think it's tough to argue that he's -- that's a tougher person to be doing this.

Comey, as the FBI director, was subjected to more political pressure and perhaps more control at the Justice Department, is one argument, than Mueller is. Do you buy that argument?

MUDD: No, I buy that.

And I take it one step further. We are also in a different place now. If you look at what the FBI does for a living, one of the things they do is document investigations. Mueller has been around for a year. The investigation's been around for a long time before that.

I guarantee, every interview, every financial record, every phone record has documented. Every interview with, for example, the CIA director, who saying he's interviewed, is on a piece of paper. We call that a 302.


Even if they try to move now, we're two years in the investigation, that electronic documentation is going nowhere and that investigation will continue. I guarantee you.

COATES: And let's be clear.

When you talk about whether or not Rosenstein is compromised because he wrote a letter saying why you think James Comey should be fired, and that may play a part in the obstruction case, the endgame of any prosecutor is not the speeding ticket on the way from the scene of the crime. That's obstruction.

It is the underlying offense you were trying to obstruct or trying to impede progress about uncovering. If that's the only basis for Mueller's investigation all this time, we would all be a little surprised. So the idea that he would be fatally compromised based on that letter is odd.

TAPPER: And this came up during Pompeo's confirmation hearings today. I want to begin with Pompeo's testimony as relates to a March 2017 conversation in which he was present where President Trump reportedly asked DNI, the director of national intelligence, Coats, to get James Comey to back off investigating Flynn.

Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he ask you to do anything as it relates to that investigation?

POMPEO: Senator, I don't recall. I don't recall what he asked me that day precisely. But I have to tell you, I'm with the president an awful lot. He has never asked me to do anything that I considered remotely improper.


TAPPER: What do you think? You buy it?

MUDD: I do. I think he's an honorable man. But I don't know how you say he's never asked me to do anything improper, but I don't remember what he asked me to do that day. (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Something of a contradiction.

MUDD: A little bit.

But I would say there's another piece of this you're not seeing. And that is, when special counsel is looking at that particular meeting, there's a lot of people who have ears on that meeting. They all have a story from that meeting. Maybe some of them took notes coming from the meeting.

So, regardless of what he remembers, there may be people who remember his role in that meeting. And when he's interviewed by the special counsel, he better stick to the script. They probably have the story of what happened in that room.

TAPPER: Were you surprised when you found that Pompeo had been interviewed, not just by the FBI as part of the Mueller investigation, but by special counsel Mueller?

COATES: I was surprised that the actual head honcho did the investigating interview with that case, but not that somebody who was in the room and that has been a lead they're pursuing was actually interviewed in this case.

But it does indicate a little bit shock to people that he's unwilling to talk about anything that happened at that, because essentially he is at liberty in a way to talk about what was investigated and what was interviewed there.

And many other people who have been interviewed by Mueller's team at least have been forthcoming about at least the categories of information. So it's -- that he wouldn't have said anything, but also it should tell you that you have somebody who's interviewed who presumably is not a subject or a target of an investigation.

Otherwise, him sitting behind a Senate -- in front of the Senate getting a confirmation hearing would be particularly odd, given that he may be down the line. It says that he is not and he may be clear in that respect, which, why not say anything?

TAPPER: Russia hawks are happy about Pompeo going to the State Department. They think that he is more hawkish than Tillerson was.

And, in fact, Pompeo said today he doesn't think Putin's gotten the message yet about election meddling. What do you think, as somebody -- is it fair to call you a Russia hawk?

MUDD: I think so.

TAPPER: A little bit, yes.

MUDD: I think this is a curious moment in American history.

Let me give you a quick snapshot. Typically, the way the government works, the president sits in the Situation Room at the White House on a big issue, like Russia hacking, decides in consultation with advisers what to do and it trickles down.

We have a unique presidency, whether it's transgender policy at the Pentagon, whether it's talking to North Koreans months ago, when the secretary of state was talking about diplomatic contacts, whether it's the issue of the Russians, where the Cabinet seems to move out and do whatever the heck they want to do.

The president is out here saying something, and the Cabinet seems to be setting policy, without the president driving policy down. I can't remember ever seeing this.

TAPPER: It is rather unusual.

Stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

A tabloid pays the doorman at a Trump building $30,000 for salacious gossip about Trump and then spikes the story, but the doorman just said he stands by what he said.

Stay with us.


[16:18:11] TAPPER: Breaking news in our politics lead. The doorman reportedly paid to keep quiet about a salacious and unproven story of President Trump fathered a child out of wedlock is confirming all the details to CNN this afternoon and standing by his claim.

"The New Yorker" magazine reports that in late 2015 "The National Enquirer" parent company paid $30,000 for the rights to the story, only to spike it, the process known as catch and kill. "The National Enquirer" says they couldn't confirm the story.

CNN's Athena Jones now joins us live.

Athena, the doorman just released a statement saying that he stands by the story. What does the statement say?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake. That's exactly right. He's sticking to his story.

And here's what he says. He says: I was instructed not to criticize President Trump's former housekeeper due to a prior relationship she had with P[resident Trump which produced a child.


JONES (voice-over): Did allies of President Trump engage in a pattern of payoffs to protect him? That's what several media outlets, including "The New Yorker", suggests, pointing to a deal that "National Enquirer" parent company AMI, struck to pay a former doorman at one of Trump's New York buildings $30,000 for his story about an unproven rumor about Trump. Dino Sajudin was peddling a story of an alleged affair Trump had in

the late 1980s with an employee with whom he fathered a daughter. There's nothing to indicate that claim is true.

"The New Yorker's" Ronan Farrow reports AMI bought that story in late 2015 and then buried it.

RONAN FARROW, NEW YORKER REPORTER: This is about the most powerful people in the country having the ability to silence and change the news narrative at will. I think that the public should know that.

JONES: Farrow said 30 minutes after "The New Yorker" contacted AMI about the deal Wednesday, one of the company's other publications "Radar Online", published a story that included a memo about the arrangement and e-mail and a polygraph report, which states that Sajudin took a lie detector test and passed it, but "The Enquirer" concluded the story was not true and didn't publish it.

Sajudin's deal included a million dollar penalty if he were to share the account without AMI's permission. Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen was in close contact with AMI about the Sajudin matter, according to Farrow.

FARROW: We do report that Michael Cohen, according to multiple individuals involved in this story, was making regular calls.

JONES: AMI categorically denies Cohen or Trump had anything to do with its decision not to pursue the story. AMI and Mr. Pecker emphatically deny any suggestion that there might have been any partnership created which might influence any business ties in regard to AMI. These claims are reckless, unsubstantiated and false.

Also before the 2016 election, AMI bought and later killed the story of former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal after paying her $150,000 for details on her alleged affair with Trump in 2006.

KAREN MCDOUGAL, FORMER PLAYBOY PLAYMATE: So we were together 10 months before I chose to end it.

JONES: White House aides had denied Trump had a relationship with McDougal and the Trump organization said Mr. Sajudin's claims are completely false.


AZUZ: And one more thing about that million dollar penalty, a source who has seen the contract between Sajudin and AMI tells my colleague Sonya Mogi (ph) Sajudin's legal team is now looking into whether or not AMI could also face having to pay the same $1 million penalty if the company breached the agreement -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Athena Jones, thanks so much.

My panel is back with me.

And, Laura, "The New Yorker" quotes Stephen Braga, he's a white-collar criminal defense professor, who says that the story is most interesting if you add up the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, quote, now with this third event it looks more and more like there's a pattern developing. That may be one of the things that the FBI was trying to find evidence of with the search warrant, the pattern seems to be we use third-party intermediaries to pay off individuals with adverts information that may harm the president. That's just a shade away from what the special counsel will be looking for in terms of intent on the obstruction of justice investigation.

Do you follow that, because I don't fully understand it?

COATES: Well, I think generally his theme here is two things, number one, we're talking not a one-off but perhaps a three-off if you have a now pattern of behavior where you're going to pay somebody to keep information private. The second part of it however is why there -- why the special counsel or why the Southern District of New York would ever be interested in this. It sounds very salacious, unrelated to the Russia probe.

However the theme really is this, what the private citizen Donald Trump and his team did to silence behavior that made him look bad is his prerogative as a private citizen. If you use those same themes however to try to silence the president or candidate Trump, you've got different stakes in here, you have campaign finances issues, you have other themes that emerge. You have bank fraud potentially, you may have threatening behavior that comes into, or coercion, all this is problematic for the candidate.

And so, if you are the team that is in charge of figuring out what you need and what information you're looking for those themes, whether the same type of intimidation or nefarious behavior that was used before is used now.

Keep in mind also, Jake, the timing is so significant of all these things. It was 11 days before general election, where you had the Stormy Daniels payment. McDougal was some time before that.

You have this new information about somebody else paying off somebody to hide it from the public perhaps. The "Access Hollywood" tape comes into play here, all about whether or not the president or his team in some way tried to suppress information in a coordinated attack.

TAPPER: So, she's a former prosecutor, you're in the investigatory are being former FBI and former CIA. Is that right when you're investigating -- are you looking for patterns? Is that one of the themes that we should be looking for here?

MUDD: Well, facts first and the facts don't start with an affair. The facts start with what's the federal violation you're worried about. Is it a financial violation where you're worried about -- as Laura was suggesting -- somebody who's paying somebody off to protect your ability to run for president? Is at a campaign contribution?

So, was there a payment? That's a fact. Yes or no? When was that payment done? Do you have conversations, emails, anything else that indicates why that payment was done? And then I'd be stepping back and asking a second-order question.

Once we determine the facts in this case, let me look at the other cases of the same people involved, the same kind of engagement with the person to pay him off, the same kind of money figures involved. But I want to know what the facts are here before I start to put in new pattern.

TAPPER: So, David Pecker, the head of the organization that owns all these tabloids, who's a friend of President Trump, he's been accused of this catch and kill, you buy the rights to these stories that make his friend Donald Trump look bad and then just never run them. He will argue theoretically or he is arguing in his statements, look, we looked into this story and we didn't believe it, so we didn't print it.

How can anybody an investigator or a prosecutor say we think that actually this is a campaign contribution that you were doing, something, a favor for your friend we don't buy your story?

MUDD: I think the most difficult thing to prove in any case is intent. Why were you doing something? So when you determine the facts in this case, did money change hands, I want to see things like timing. Did it come at a timing when we have people involved in the Trump circle who are already talking about the president's ear in the midst of a campaign?

[16:25:03] If you want to say me to say to me in that circumstance, well, we just did this as a favor and we never considered that the president was actually going to be the president potentially and that we might get something in return I'd sit back and say you can claim that. but my ma's -- as my grandma would say I may be dumb but I'm not stupid, that's all bad.

TAPPER: All right. Everybody, stick around.

Coming up next, inside the Republican plot to discredit the fired FBI Director James Comey, just as he begins to start talking about his book and launching his tell-all book tour. Stick around.


TAPPER: In our politics lead now. President Trump and the Republican Party are preparing to try to take down former FBI Director James Comey.

CNN has exclusive details about the White House and Republican National Committee campaign to attempt to discredit Comey, including a brand new Website that launched today called The attempt is to undermine Comey as the former FBI director kicks off his book tour Sunday.