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INSIDE POLITICS

Investigation of Cohen; Daniels' Lawyer Tweets; Comey Damaging his Brand; Comey Credible Witness. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 16, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:13] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The president on the move this hour in Florida for a roundtable on taxes. But with so much controversy swirling, here's a question, will the president stick to the script?

Plus, his long-time personal lawyer is due in court shortly and porn actress Stormy Daniels also showing up. Yes, a bit of a circus, but also big legal questions as a rattled president tries to find out just what prosecutors know.

And a new tweet storm attacking James Comey. The former FBI director looms large in the other big investigation threatening the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: At least in my experience, he won't criticize Vladimir Putin even in private. Even in a meeting with three people in the Oval Office he is arguing that he gave a good answer when he said, essentially, we are the same kind of killers that Putin's thugs are. And that struck me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: To Director Comey and the debate over his publicity blitz in a moment.

But we begin with today's escalation of a court fight that is full of tabloid and reality TV flavor, but also holds enormous consequence for President Trump and his long-time fixer, attorney Michael Cohen.

Cohen is due in court this afternoon and a short time ago suggested in a new legal filing that the investigation of his business dealings is politically motivated. It's worth noting, very important, federal prosecutors in New York, who served the sweeping search warrant on Cohen last week work for the Trump Justice Department. But, like his client, the president, Cohen asserts in a new filing there is growing public debate about whether criminal and congressional investigations by the government are being undertaken impartially, free of political bias or partisan motivation. Now that filing challenges the search warrant and says that the court

won't just throw it out. It should at least create a special process to review the seized materials. That designed to keep privileged information away from prosecutors. The hearing gets underway in two hours.

And the porn actress, Stormy Daniels, plans to be there, too. The seized materials include evidence about Cohen's payments to Daniels, who says she had an affair with the president. Also there will be a new legal team hired by President Trump, who wants to know just what the feds know about Cohen.

CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz will be heading to that hearing shortly.

Shimon, we're learning more and more about the government's investigation. Tell us.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, that's right.

So this morning the court filed a transcript from Friday. There was a transcript that was a conversation that occurred on the sidebar. And this morning the court released that.

And what we've learned is pretty significant here in terms of just where the investigation stands against Michael Cohen. The prosecutor, the lead prosecutor in this case, talking to the judge at the sidebar conversation says that they have considerable amount of information about Mr. Cohen's activities.

He then goes on to say how this is a fast-moving investigation. Essentially what's going on is, the government feels that with these emergency relief requests, with what Michael Cohen's attorneys are doing and now what the president's attorneys are doing is just a stall tactic and they're hoping to just get going. They want to be able to start -- continue their investigation, start looking at the material that they seized on Monday. They have not been able to look at any of that.

But keep in mind, even before this raid on Monday, what they're saying is, is that they already have considerable amount of information. And we also know from Friday's filing, another filing that they -- that was posted on Friday, that his e-mails, Michael Cohen's e-mails, are in the possession of the government. That they had warrants for what they called covert warrants and they've been able to review that.

And essentially what's at stake here now, John, is, like you said, whether or not the government is going to be able to proceed in reviewing these materials. It's likely the judge will rule today. She says the case law is really on the government's side, not on the defense team's side in this one.

KING: A remarkable hearing coming up in just a couple of hours. Shimon, we'll touch base with you tomorrow, I'm sure, about the details of what happens inside the court. Appreciate the reporting there. With me today to share their reporting and their insight, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Manu Raju, Catherine Lucey of "The Associated Press," and Mary Katharine Ham with "The Federalist."

Again, like everything involving the Trump administration, there's some reality TV aspect to this. The porn actress showing up for the court hearing. Let's set that aside for a minute.

The president's personal attorney, in language much more tame than the president, but picking up the president's argument, trying to suggest this is politics at play here. The government saying, no, we understand it's a high bar to have a search warrant served on the president's personal lawyer, on any lawyer, especially the president's personal lawyer, but we have evidence that we think he's going to destroy evidence. We have evidence that we have a case against him.

We're going to get to Jim Comey and Robert Mueller and the Russian special counsel in a minute.

Inside the White House, they think this is the biggest immediate threat to the president of the United States, right?

[12:05:01] JULIE HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, certainly the president thinks that its' the biggest, immediate threat to him. I'm not sure that his entire legal team shares that view. But what Michael Cohen knows and what -- what is in his records likely is a lot of things about Donald Trump's business life, his personal life, things that go way beyond just the period when he was running for president. And now that he's been in the Oval Office. And the president views that as an existential threat. If someone can get their hands on all of those private matters and the details of all of those private matters, that is going to be a problem for him, he believes. And so I think that's why his staff is operating on that assumption, because whether or not the stakes of the Russia investigation are higher, sort of empirically speaking, the president sees this as a direct attack on his authority and on, you know, his sort of right to privacy and to keeping all of these things. And there were a lot of issues that Michael Cohen dealt with for Donald Trump private.

KING: I mean think -- think about the bizarre nature of the hearing. There will be three parties in there arguing they have privacy rights here, the president of the United States, the president's personal attorney, and a porn actress.

CATHARINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": And the big issue, I think, that -- to Julie's point, that the president's team, they're trying to figure out, is just what exactly they have. And that's creating a lot of anxiety because there's a lot of uncertainty about just how much information there is and what could be in there.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think you also -- just take a step back to see the -- how much potential legal jeopardy the president is in right now. I mean not just on this case and Michael Cohen or whatever they have seized in this raid that could potentially implicate the president one way or another, the Mueller investigation still picking up steam. There could be other associates of the president who get into further legal jeopardy.

And then, on the civil side, in the Stormy Daniels case, that, you know, Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, is pursuing, what if the president's forced to be deposed in that case. The president is being hit on several different fronts now, which perhaps is one reason why he's lashing out in different ways. But the president -- it's remarkable to see a president under siege on so many different fronts on the legal side.

KING: And it's going to be fascinating I think today to hear the prosecutors make more of their case. In the sense that, whatever you think of the president of the United States, he has the right to legal counsel. Whatever you think of the president of the United States, he has the right to have private conversations with his attorney. What the government is saying is, that's not what this is. That if Cohen is in the process of either covering up crimes or illegally moving money around, that that's not covered by the attorney-client privilege.

But the president's legal team filed this late last night. The president objects to the government's proposal, fairness and justice, as well as the appearance of fairness and justice require that before they are turned over to the investigative team, the seized materials relating to the president must be reviewed by the only person who is truly motivated to ensure that the privilege is properly invoked and applied, the privilege-holder himself, the president.

They're making the case that we should get the materials first and then here's the -- the prosecutor will argue back, we can't trust him to only hand over the stuff that's not covered.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, "THE FEDERALIST": Well, and there is a process in place by which you clear those, but it does go through the law enforcement agency. And I can understand them being concerned about it.

I will say also, Stormy's team remains extremely good at playing this game by putting her in that courtroom for the hearing. And it's a Trumpian style game to keep people paying attention. And perhaps one of the reasons that he's paying a lot of attention to it, because this is his turf. This is his media-style war that she's waging and waging it successfully.

But on a -- from a civil (INAUDIBLE) perspective, even if you don't care for Cohen or you don't care for Trump, I don't mind the government being put through its paces on this one bit. And they're putting civil libertarians, who would have agreed with you more perhaps during the Obama years, including at "The New York Times" editorial page, that sort of shrugged this off the other day, but it's important for them to bring the reason that they went to this extraordinary place.

KING: I agree 10,000 percent in the sense that the government -- this is unprecedented. Your -- it's very rare to serve a search warrant on an attorney. Unprecedented, Michael Cohen argues, and I can't think of another example, to serve on the personal attorney to the president of the United States, so they should be held to a higher bar. The question is, if they clear that bar, what does that say about Michael Cohen and potentially about the president?

To your point about Stormy Daniels playing Trump's game, if you will, and understanding the media, this is Michael Avenatti, who is her new attorney, who gets this business very well. This is a tweet from him. To those who did not learn history -- those who do not learn history are deemed to repeat it. And then tweets a link to a 1991 story in "The New York Times," where one of John Gotti's (ph) aides, mob boss John Gotti's aides turned on him.

Again, you could argue that's reckless. You could argue that's unfair. You could argue that's putting the horse -- the cart way out ahead of the horse in terms of what we know about the facts. You could argue it's pretty clever.

DAVIS: Well, absolutely. And I mean what was interesting about that statement you just read from the president's personal attorneys is, is that he talks about Donald Trump being the only person who can review these materials and say whether privilege needs to be invoked or not. Well, you think maybe Michael Cohen, who is the actual lawyer, would also be one of those people. But what's interesting to me about the way that they worded that is that there is the possibility that Cohen could flip. And that's clearly what Avenatti is trying to suggest.

[12:10:01] I think, you know, Trump thinks that he's going to be loyal. He has been loyal. Cohen has been trying to telegraph that he will continue to be loyal. But the fact is the legal stakes for him are huge and there is the possibility that he could be motivated to, you know, tell prosecutors something that they need to hear or want to hear about the president in the course of dealing with all of this legal risk on him. And so that's a real concern for the president. That's another of the reasons that he is so worried about Cohen being targeted in this way.

KING: Right. And I think it's fascinating when you heard from Shimon at the top of the show about the sidebar. And if you watch court TV, you know what we're talking about. The judge calls the attorney up to talk over here. It's hard to hear in the courtroom that transcript. The attorneys making the case, you can't stop us here. We need to see these materials as quickly as possible because, they say, and they should have to air it out in court to the degree they can without compromising the investigation, they say they have evidence that Michael Cohen was not acting as an attorney. He's in some sort of corrupt business practices. And that the reason that they served a search warrant and didn't just had him a subpoena is because they had evidence to believe, and that's a high bar to cross, evidence to believe he was going to destroy evidence or not cooperate with their investigation.

LUCEY: Well, and it is notable to me that in all of the news coverage now about Cohen, increasingly the first word that you describe him isn't attorney but it's fixer. I mean this is the president's -- personal attorney for the president, but the thing that we hear the most about is that he is someone who fixed things for him legally, privately, however he did it. And I think that is really what they're trying to get at here.

RAJU: But just given how extraordinary this is, that, as you mentioned, very rare for an attorney for this type -- and perhaps unprecedented for the president's attorney, clearly they had a significant degree of evidence to go forward and get a judge to allow them to search these premises. So they probably have some rationale for their argument going forward. It's just -- we'll see what the judge ultimately says.

KING: And just like in the special counsel case, a lot of it's cloaked in secrecy, a lot of it's cloaked in privilege and privacy. We've learned little nuggets from these court hearings when people go to court -- in the Manafort case, for example, to challenge. That's when we learned about it. We're going to learn more this afternoon as Michael Cohen and the president's team challenge this warrant.

Up next, James Comey's media blitz begins. He's certainly selling books, but is he undermining his credibility as a witness?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:17] KING: Welcome back.

You know this, unless you've been hiding, but James Comey kicking off his tell-all book tour with a very controversial bang. You've already read the excerpts or seen them on television. He takes shots at the president's appearance and his moral character.

Now in an interview with ABC on Sunday night, Comey going for the jugular. Remember what matters most here. Comey's firing nearly a year ago sparked questions of obstruction of justice by the president, led to the appointment of the special counsel. Here's Comey last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Was President Trump obstructing justice?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Possibly. I mean it's certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?

COMEY: I think it's possible. I don't know. I think -- these are more words I never thought I'd utter about a president of the United States, but it's possible. I would have been able to say with high confidence about any other president I dealt with, but I can't, it's possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now there's no doubt the publicity tour is helping sell books. It's also raising eyebrows and some legal questions. This is CNN contributor Mike Rogers. He's the former chairman with the

House Intelligence Committee, also a former FBI agent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: To have the FBI director, in the middle of an investigation, even speculate that the president may have committed a crime, he wasn't quite sure, I just thought really damages both his brand and the FBI brand.

The fact that we now have two boys in the school yard calling each other names, I think is horrifically unproductive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It's a similar conversation to the one we just had in the sense that some of this is playing out in the court of public opinion, and James Comey, like him or not, has decided he's going to join the insult factory and compete with the president to go back and forth insulting each other.

Then there are the legal questions. George Stephanopoulos asking the question, did the president obstruct justice? Possible. Do the Russians have anything on the president? Possible.

He, at least up to the point of when he was fired, he could answer more definitively. He's choosing not to for what reason?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, I think (INAUDIBLE) here. I mean this is why he's out in public right now. But clearly he has jumped off of the sidelines and jumped out of the role of being a disinterested law enforcement person that he so proudly had for many decades and really jumped into the partisan fray here and, you know, he could have given an interview and written a book that was much more kind of down the middle, but he clearly has a point of view and he's taking sides and he said some things about the president that were pretty petty about like his hairdo and the size of his hands and the -- his orange face with the, you know, tanning salon cups, potentially. So he definitely is coming from an angle. And it's possible that that damages his credibility with the public.

I don't actually think it really changes the political calculus. There were -- you know, Republicans, and particularly strong Trump supporters, are going to think of him as evil and wrong anyway. And Democrats have mixed feelings about Jim Comey because of his role on the Clinton e-mail matter. And -- but, in general we're going to point to what he said in the book and what he says in the interview and say, you see, there's a law enforcement guy saying what we've all been saying about Donald Trump. So I don't think this really changes the political calculus much, but it does raise questions about, you know, why is he going quite so hard on some of the more petty, personal things.

KING: Right. And just for the record, Sarah -- the president's on his way to Florida. We should see him land any minute. We'll show you that when it happens. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, on the flight down, did the president watch the Comey interview? She says, he saw bits and pieces of it. Didn't watch the whole thing. What was his reaction? Pretty similar. We have -- didn't learn anything new. Pretty much the same feelings. The president pretty clear what those are and the rest of the administration.

The president has been pretty clear what those are, tweeting again this morning, Comey drafted the crooked Hillary exoneration long before he talked to her, lied to Congress, then based his decisions on her poll numbers. Disgruntled, he, McCabe and the others committed many crimes. Factual -- a lot of the president's tweets, factual errors, or he's leaping to conclusions we can prove.

[12:20:07] But these two have decided, this is what we've got right now. That's it. That's -- again, it makes great cable television. It makes for great Twitter. My question is more important to the Mueller investigation. Is Comey being careful enough here that he doesn't undermine himself as a witness? In the sense that if he says anything in these interviews that doesn't match up with what he told Mueller in the investigation, if the president has a good attorney, that's where the credibility question will matter, let me put it that way, not in this court of public opinion but in a court of law.

RAJU: Yes, I mean, no question this is a big risk doing this publicity tour the way he's doing it, the books, the pot shots, the president, big risk for him, particularly his role in all of this.

But, ultimately, despite all the noise, the ultimate questions are going to be those interactions that the president did have with James Comey where he allegedly asked him for loyalty, where he allegedly asked him to back off the investigation into Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser, somebody who has now pleaded guilty about his conversations with Russians. What did he do in those conversations?

And one thing that Comey did not say or did not know yesterday was whether or not the president knew that Flynn lied to the FBI at the time that he allegedly asked him to back off the investigation of Michael Flynn. Those are things that Mueller will ultimately have to investigate. And that's essentially -- that's the essence of what, you know -- you know, despite all the noise, that's what -- where things will probably be.

KING: An hour aired on ABC last night. They did five hours of the taping. You see our sample at the top of the program an interview with "USA Today." There are many others, including he'll be on CNN with Jake Tapper later this week as well.

So the question is this. This is Jack Sherman (ph), who worked on the special -- as -- with the special counsel team in the Whitewater investigation. The book amounts to a new 300 page witness statement. And if it differs at all from what he provided to the special counsel, you can be sure there will be a challenge if this case moves to an impeachment or a trial. This will at least be a pain for Mueller to deal with. Meaning, there's somebody in the special counsel's office whose job it

has just become, hold up the transcript of your interviews with Comey, now match them up to everything he's saying as he tries to sell this book, then match them up to everything that's in the book and make sure there are no inconsistencies.

LUCEY: Well undoubtable they're doing a lot of speed reading to compare all of them. But I think also what we're seeing from Comey is, he's making a bigger argument than just these meetings or the Russia probe. He's really making a sort of moral case to the American public. I mean he's going very big here saying that this man isn't fit to be president, talking about the way he speaks about women, the way he treats people. And -- so -- and he also spoke looking ahead to the next election. He was asked, should he be impeached? And he said, no, he thinks the American people need to make a judgment here.

KING: That's a fascinating point.

LUCEY: He's making a broad case.

KING: That's -- it's a fascinating point because he, as a deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, as a Justice Department prosecutor before that, then as FBI director, his job was to stay out of politics. But he said, I hope not. When the impeachment question was asked, he said, I hope not, but this should be settled in the next election. The American people should vote on this. That, again, he's injecting himself into an area that he was paid to avoid and told to avoid for most of his career in public service.

HAM: Right. And that's why I think a lot of this is interesting, and I'm going back to the political and public perception part of it. But if his goal is to sort of shore up the FBI, and law enforcement's reputation, and his own as being a disinterested law enforcement officer, to shift from being that disinterested law enforcement officer, to being an open partisan arguer and attack dog in some of these paragraphs, I'm not sure how that builds that case. It does sell you books, but I don't think -- if many people on the Trump side worry that a disinterested powerful law enforcement officer is bound to become and act like a partisan attack dog in their role, then proving that maybe you were that is not a great look.

KING: And --

HAM: And I'm somebody who was friendly to Comey throughout this and saying he was served a bad plate here by the American people in our picks to run for president, but it's not good.

KING: And then one of the debates is now that we know the president, seeing all this Comey stuff, seeing the Cohen stuff going forward and Rod Rosenstein's role in that, as well as the Mueller investigation has all these ruminations, is the president going to fire somebody? Here's Jim Comey saying that would cross a line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COMEY: It would, I hope, set off alarm bells that this is his most serious attack yet on the rule of law. And it would be something that our entire country, again, Democrats and Republicans, that is higher than all the normal fights about policy. And it would be to the everlasting shame of partisans if they were unable to see that higher level and to protect it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The question a lot of people know the president ask is, you know, a lot of Republicans have given that advice in public and private to the president, don't go there. But if he sees Jim Comey giving it to him, might that provoke him is a question people ask.

DAVIS: I think that's a fair question. I mean, you know, anything -- pretty much anything that comes out of Jim Comey's mouth at this point, Trump is going to disagree with and make a show of disagreeing with. So, yes, I think it's very possible that -- but, again, I think that the president's concerns with Rosenstein are -- you know, well predate that comment. And he has wanted to and ruminated about going the next few steps to potentially dismissing Rosenstein long before this. So it might contribute, but I don't think it would be the only reason.

[12:25:07] KING: I think -- I think a bigger -- the most immediate factor in that will be this court hearing in the Cohen case this afternoon. Rosenstein approved that warrant. We'll see how that one plays out.

A quick reminder for our viewers, again, our former FBI director, James Comey, will be right here at CNN to talk to Jake Tapper. That's Thursday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern. Remember, watch the interview right here on CNN.

When we come back, the White House expected to hit Russia with new sanctions. The target? Businesses that help prop up the Assad regime.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

The Trump administration, as early as today, plans to slap new sanctions on Russia, targeting businesses the White House says provide military equipment and financing for the Assad regime in Syria. A source telling CNN, more than a dozen Russian entities are on a list being fine-tuned now at the Treasury Department. The sanctions follow the weekend air strikes by U.S., British and French forces on sites linked to Syria's chemical weapons programs.

[12:30:07] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: This is a very strained time between the United States and Russia.