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Cohen Drops Libel Suits; Cohen Flip on Trump; Trump on Firing Rosenstein and Mueller; Trump Insists No Collusion. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 19, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Eight thousand stores across the country on May 29th in the afternoon to give its employees 175,000 of them, racial bias training.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: IT's very good to hear these men speaking out, though.


BOLDUAN: Alison, thank you so much.

KOSIK: Sure.

BOLDUAN: And thank you all so much for joining me. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.


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

A big retreat today by the president's long-time fixer. Michael Cohen drops two defamation suits to focus on the federal criminal investigation into his conduct. That as the president is being warned Cohen might flip.

Plus, the president says his tough new trade actions are already bringing in billions and creating new American jobs. Do his claims pass the fact check?

And, forget politics for just a moment. What makes America great already are people like the Texas firefighter who rushed to help when that engine exploded on the Southwest Airlines flight the other day.


ANDREW NEEDUM, FIREFIGHTER WHO TRIED TO SAVE SOUTHWEST FLIGHT 1380 VICTIM: God put people on that flight for a reason. And, you know, that's -- everybody acted and everybody stood strong.

There was a family that lost a loved one. (INAUDIBLE). I feel for her family. I feel for her two kids, her husband, the community that she lived in. I can't imagine what they're going through.


KING: A remarkable moment there earlier today. Amen to that.

Up first for us today, a big retreat by the president's long-time lawyer and fixer. And a bigger question, should President Trump now be worried there are limits to Michael Cohen's loyalty? Cohen today dropped defamation suits against Buzzfeed and the research firm Fusion GPS. He filed those suits back in January claiming he was recklessly smeared by publication of the allegations in that now infamous Russia dossier. But Cohen is now under federal crimination investigation and his attorney says the defamation suits are being dropped, quote, given the events that have unfolded and the time, attention and resources needed to prosecute these matters.

Is it just time and legal fees, or is Cohen protecting himself from being questioned under oath in those cases, now that his every word is under scrutiny by the feds? And should the president listen to those now telling him he should be worried Cohen could flip?

Let's get some legal perspective first from Solomon Wisenberg. He's a veteran attorney whose resume includes serving as the deputy in the Whitewater Special Counsel investigation.

Sol, Michael Cohen dropping these suits even though his statements in the past have been, I've been liabled, I've been defamed, I want them to pay. Does it make legal sense?

SOLOMON WISENBERG, FORMER WHITEWATER DEPUTY INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Well, it makes absolute legal sense. In addition to the time, attention and resources needed to defend against a criminal investigation by one of the premiere U.S. attorney's offices in the country, as you know, John, when you sue somebody for defamation, to begin with, Michael Cohen is a public figure, so it's a very difficult standard.

Second, you have to answer all kinds of questions that don't necessarily have any direct relationship with the thing you're suing about, the Steele dossier. They could ask him about a number of things. As President Clinton found out in the Paula Jones lawsuit, it's very broad what you can ask about in discovery. So there are probably a lot of things that we don't even know about that are connected to the southern district investigation that he just -- is not in his interest to answer. And if he takes the Fifth, that can be used against him in a civil proceeding, unlike a criminal proceeding. So it's a very smart move.

KING: And especially not in his interest, I assume the point you're trying to make is, given that the feds now have served a search warrant on his office. They have all these documents, all these records. If he says anything that's not even close to the truth, never mind the defamation suits, the feds then have that.

WISENBERG: Well, he's got -- you've got two issues here. Remember, you never want your client to talk about things when he or she is under criminal investigation. And so if he is asked about this, he can either take the Fifth, which can be used against him in the civil case, or he can tell the truth that might incriminate him, or he can end up saying something that's later found out to be false, which is what happened to President Clinton when he said that he -- he doesn't think he was ever alone with Monica Lewinsky in the Paula Jones case. So it's just very, very dangerous for him.

KING: Very, very dangerous, you say.

From your perspective, having been on both sides of this, as a prosecutor and in a defense setting, you -- we hear the president's making phone calls. He's asking people, should I trust Michael Cohen? One of his previous attorneys from several years back has said, you should be nervous, Mr. President, I think he's going to flip. You can't serve this warrant without a threshold piece of evidence. From your perspective, is Michael Cohen in enough legal jeopardy that he has to sit down and think, am I loyal to myself or loyal to the president?

[12:05:04] WISENBERG: Well, I think that many people in his situation -- look, he's -- at a minimum he's a subject of an investigation. He's probably -- he's possibly -- very possibly a target of a criminal investigation. So that always goes through one's mind when you're in the position of Michael Cohen.

As far as what the president should or shouldn't be worried about, there's really not a lot he can do about it. He certainly should not -- not at this time be discussing anything of substance with Mr. Cohen. So -- but there's not much you can do at this point except -- I guess he can have his lawyers enter into a joint defense arrangement, if it hasn't already been done, with Mr. Cohen's attorneys, and that way you can find out exactly -- for example, you know, what's in the warrant, which I'm sure they already know, and a number of other things. You want to keep those discussions between the attorneys, though. You don't want to involve the president.

KING: All right. Maybe I'll send him a transcript and see if he'll take your advice, you don't want to involve the president. He tends to involve himself, I think, more than anything.

Sol Wisenberg, appreciate your insights today. We'll have you back as this progresses.

WISENBERG: No problem.

KING: With me in studio here to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, "Bloomberg's" Sahil Kapur, Olivier Knox with Sirius XM, and Julia Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times."

It is a fascinating retreat by Michael Cohen just to drop these suits because it is so much his M.O. It was businessman Donald Trump's M.O., I'm going to sue you.

And so why did he -- why is he turning here -- you just heard the legal perspective. It's important. Is there a political element too or is it just Michael Cohen worrying about his legal standing in that he's gone from being pitbull to, forgive me, pussycat. DANA BAS, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and, look, it's one

thing to wage a defamation case when you feel like you're on the offense, when you don't really have much to lose. He has so much to lose. And given all of the things in front of him, not the least of which was -- were the raids in his office and his -- in his hotel where he's living, that is clearly where he wants his focus, needs his focus to be, never mind the very important legal issues that we just heard about the fact that a defamation case can sort of, you know, bring up, kick up a lot of things that he doesn't want that could be related to and even hurt him more in these other battles he's fighting.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. And as you mentioned, some of the arguments he was probably prepared to make in this defamation case rely on the veracity of, you know, whether you believe him or not. And now prosecutors have all of these documents that may actually make it more complicated for him to push -- to sort of push forward on his case.

And, you know, as to the question of whether he might flip, obviously this is not in and of itself an indication of anything, but these defamation cases were in large part not only to protect him but to protect the president's reputation. I mean this was, in essence, an effort to say, you know, the dossier was fake, there -- you know, there was -- you know, this whole thing is a hoax. And to the degree that pushing -- pulling back those cases sort of takes that away, it is an indication that the case against him is going to make him -- has already made him less apt to sort of spend time and energy defending Donald Trump.

KING: And so the president makes these calls. Among those he's called is Jay Goldberg, who was a former Trump attorney, worked for the Trump Organization back in the day. Here's what he tells CNN. Anybody who's facing 30 years never stands up. Without exception, a person facing a prison term cooperates. I said that people who face a long prison term invariably become government witnesses.

That's what Mr. Goldberg says he told the president of the United States.

How do you think the president of the United States reacts when he's told by an attorney -- presumably he called him, he must trust him -- you should be worried your friend might flip?

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, SIRIUS XM: Well, it kind of depends which attorney he spoke to last, first of all, because the president has a tendency to take that final input as the decisive one.

The interesting question here is, "flip" implies that --

KING: Exactly.

KNOX: That Michael Cohen --

KING: Why is this an issue? Why --

KNOX: Has information that would be damaging to the --

KING: Right.

KNOX: Not just damaging, legally damaging, to the president of the United States.

KING: Right.

KNOX: I don't -- you can't flip if there's nothing there. So I'm a little intrigued by the assumptions built into Mr. Goldberg's comments.

KING: Right. Exactly right. It implied in the conversation is there's something for the president to be worried about. Now, we don't know that to be true, but he's making these phone calls, he's seeking advice from people, what do you think about the case against Michael, et cetera. To that point, to say, gee, he might flip on you means you are assuming there's something for Michael Cohen to give the prosecutors on the president.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": And that's where this could ensnare the Trump Organization because Michael Cohen, according to people who have studied the Trump Organization for many years, has been kind of an intermediary between the Trump family and people that they've had business dealings with. And they've -- that has included people in countries like Azerbaijan and Indonesia and Georgia who are known in those countries to be unsavory characters. Some of them have been investigated for things like money laundering and fraud. That is not to say the Trump organization has done anything untoward necessarily, but now these questions are suddenly there.

And the southern district of New York, that case is going forward regardless of what happens with the Mueller investigation. It's been nicknamed the sovereign district of New York by prosecutors. Just kind of an indication of the independence there. That is going forward regardless of what happens to the Russia investigation.

[12:10:07] KING: And one of the questions here from the political standpoint -- and I guess there's legal implications -- who does the president believe? Does he believe Mr. Goldberg, who says you should be worried Michael Cohen will flip and turn on you, or does he believe Anthony Scaramucci who said, no way?


ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Anything goes in our society in politics, unfortunately. I think that the rules are constantly shifting and moving. And people that you think are loyal to you end up not being loyal to you. But I would really be personally shocked. Michael is -- to me he's a very loyal person. If you said to me, and I had to flip a coin, is he going to turn on President Trump or turn on other people, I would say adamantly no.


KING: Just to debate, I assume, is one of the reasons we're told the president's not happy about all this? I'm being polite.

BASH: No, absolutely. Yes. And, look, Michael Cohen is loyal. There's no question about that. He has spent much of his adult life, his career, trying to help Donald Trump in private life and now as president of the United States. He loves him -- it's unequivocal, you know, almost as a member of his family.

But he also has an actual family. He has a wife. He has children. And he's a relatively young man who, if he is facing potentially decades in prison, it's a whole different ball game.

DAVIS: Right, he's not flipping a coin between flipping on Donald Trump and flipping on someone else.

BASH: Right.

DAVIS: It's basically a choice -- it could come down to a choice between himself and the president. And, you know, whether or not there's any, you know, criminal activity that he's aware of or anything that's in these documents that prosecutors now have that directly implicates Trump, we know that Mr. Goldberg also told Donald Trump that he should, under no circumstances, talk to Mueller, because the feeling is, and this is a feeling that the president keenly believes, that he could get jammed up regardless. That even if he's telling the truth, even if he's done nothing wrong, that there could be risk for him. And he's right about that. There is legal risk aplenty for him regardless of whether there was any criminal activity that they know about right now.

KING: And that's just one part of the equation.

Just yesterday you heard the president not answering directly when asked, would you ever fire Bob Mueller, would you ever fire Rod Rosenstein? He says, they're still there, seemingly leaving it on the table that he's not going to do that. We don't know that for sure. The president also said he hopes this wraps up soon.

Today, as we speak, a court hearing involving his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. This won't wrap up soon.

We'll be right back.


[12:16:34] KING: Welcome back.

The president's former campaign chairman is in federal court today as we speak trying to convince a judge that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is the rouge prosecutor way outside of his mandate. The Department of Justice, directly challenging that, claimed today, saying in court, quote, we ever an alive and awake acting attorney general who's looking at the investigation and know what's going on. That would be Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

We are waiting for the news from that hearing. Just the fact that it is underway reminds us there is no end in sight to this investigation. Which makes part of this wishful thinking at best. The president, asked yesterday whether he has ruled out firing Mueller or the deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein, who, of course, oversees Mueller.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As far as the two gentlemen you told me about, they've been saying I'm going to get rid of them for the last three months, four months, five months, and they're still here. So we want to get the investigation over with, done with, put it behind us, and we have to get back to business.


KING: To the point about they're still here, they are still there. But we keep asking because the president won't say, of course not. They're in their jobs. I may not like what they're doing, but I just want them to finish. I won't interfere. I did nothing wrong. Let's get it over with. Why -- that's -- that's not too hard. What did that take, 15 seconds?

BASH: Because that's not what's really going on.


BASH: I mean that's the -- but that's the answer. We were talking about this in the break that the reason Jennifer Jacobs asked that, Julie would have asked, Olivier, all of us would have asked that same -- or at least a version of that question is because we are hearing from sources consistently that the president talks about, muses about, asks people if he should, if he could, if he would fire either of those two people, particularly now, at least we are told the focus has been much more on Rosenstein, maybe even more after you read what you just read, that the Mueller prosecutors talked about Rosenstein being so active, alive and awake with regard to the expansion of his investigation.

KAPUR: Well, also notable, I would just say, in November 20th he was asked about Rex Tillerson. His response, he's here. Rex is here, unquote. Now, I'm not saying this is the same thing. I'm just saying, you know, obviously firing Mueller would be a different category of things. It would be much more explosive and much more controversial. That's not to say he will. It's possible he's just keeping the arrow in his quiver. But these are not exactly reassuring words from President Trump that he won't do that given his previous statements.

KING: Right.

DAVIS: And there's a common thread there as well. I mean I don't want to pretend like I'm in Donald Trump's head, but he enjoys having the notion out there that someone is on thin ice. That, you know, they're -- they're -- that they should watch themselves. That, you know, they might lose their job, they might be removed and they should watch what they're doing. He wants that out there.

And, I mean, I do think that they're -- he wanted that with Rex Tillerson because he wanted to telegraph to him that he wasn't, you know, doing what he wanted him to do and he wasn't acting in a way that he felt -- felt was, you know, advocating for his interests. And I do think that there's an element of that here, that he wants to put Rosenstein on notice. He wants to, in some way, put Mueller on notice that, you know, you're here now, but you might not be here tomorrow.

KING: And this -- what's playing out in court today, it's a status update, which happens in every trial. But in the Manafort case, obviously, it tells you, we're going to have a trial probably later this summer. It means the case is going to go on for quite some time, including right up to near the midterm elections. But it gets to the core.

Manafort's in there saying Bob Mueller can't do this. Part of the Justice Department's response and the special counsel's response is, the memo from Rod Rosenstein, the president's deputy attorney general, that directs -- doesn't ask Bob Mueller and say you can, it directs him to investigate allegations Paul Manafort committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election. He was specifically told by the Trump appointed deputy attorney general to look into this. So that is Mueller's defense in court. That collusion word gets under the president's skin. We heard it again yesterday.

[12:20:27] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That there was no collusion. And that's been so found, as you know, by the House Intelligence Committee. There's no collusion. There was no collusion with Russia, other than by the Democrats, or as I call them the obstructionists, because they truly are obstructionists.

But there has been no collusion. They won't find any collusion. It doesn't exist.


KING: We could spend a lot of time on this. One of the key facts is the investigation started before the election. The investigation started before the election. The investigation is not a Democratic hoax because they lost. Democrats -- there might be politics involved in this, yes, but the investigation started before.

But that word gets under the president's skin.

KNOX: It really does. I mean, look, he -- we plowed this terrain before, but basically he views it an attack on his legitimacy as president. He's never going to -- he's never going to accept anything like that.

We should -- we can also go back and say, you know, there was that one meeting at Trump Tower where several senior figures in the Trump orbit met with a Russian agent who was offering them dirt on Hillary Clinton. So, you know, maybe we should be a little bit more cautious about saying there's absolutely zero evidence of anything here. BASH: But I actually read what the president was trying to telegraph a

little bit differently, which is, he was stuck on collusion because he was, I thought, trying to remind people that that was the genesis of this investigation, not necessarily, you know, expanding to his financials or anything else -- obstruction of justice or anything else that might have come out, which is in the -- it is the purview of the -- of the special counsel to investigate anything that they find as a part of this investigation.

But to me it felt like he is sort of trying to turn the direction back to the initial case, which he claims never happened.

KING: Well, he -- as someone who covered the Clinton White House, good luck to him on that.

BASH: Exactly. Oh, yes.

KING: As Sol Wisenberg was making the point earlier in the program, what started out as an investigation of a real estate parcel in western Arkansas got you to Paula Jones, got you to Monica Lewinsky. Once these things start, good luck trying to focus them.

Another point the president made yesterday is -- this came up again. He's been in this public -- the White House has been in a public fight with the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley because they suddenly decided not to impose new sanctions on Russia. The president made that decision at the White House. Nikki Haley went on television and said it's coming tomorrow. Then it didn't come. Then their having a little back and forth, shall we say. I won't use the words that popped into my head.

Here's the president yesterday saying, no, I'm Mr. Tough here.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll do -- we'll do sanctions as soon as they very much deserve it. We will have -- that is a question. There has been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump.


KING: He came back. He was walking out and he came back to answer that question. It was an opportunity for him to, number one, say I'm sorry for the mix-up with Nikki Haley, or Nikki Haley and I are on the same page. There was an opportunity there to end that controversy, and he didn't.

DAVIS: Well, he didn't do that. And Nikki Haley, I think, tried to at the U.S. yesterday. She was asked about their relationship. She said it was perfect.

But what was so interesting about what the president said when he went back to the mics is, for -- in the same breath he's saying, we'll impose sanctions as soon as they very much deserve it. Well, the rest of the administration has been saying for weeks, but particularly in the last week since the chemical weapons attack in Douma, that they very much deserve it now.

And then he said, gets up and says, well I'm -- you know, nobody's tougher than me on Russia. So it's just more of this -- what we've been seeing for months now, which is a real mixed message between him and the rest of the administration.

BASH: With all due respect, they don't get confused.

KING: Right. Yes.

KAPUR: Members of his own party too are, you know, pushing for more sanctions. I think he's in a place where his defiance about the entire Russia investigation casting a cloud over his legitimacy as president has translated, I think, to his defiance. Oh, you want me to do this about Russia? I don't have to because there's nothing that I did wrong.

KING: Well, when we come back, we move on to another big world challenge. The president says his upcoming face-to-face meeting with North Korea's dictator is a, quote, great chance to solve world problems. But will he have a secretary of state at his side if that summit takes place?


[12:28:36] KING: Welcome back.

President Trump says he's confident he can cut a deal with North Korea's Kim Jong-un. But he also says he's being flexible, meaning he'll walk out of the summit if it's going nowhere, or he'll cancel it outright if he gets the impression no progress can be made.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we don't think it's going to be successful, Mark, we won't have it. We won't have it. If I think that it's a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we're not going to go. If the meeting when I'm there is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.


KING: May or June remain the target date subject to additional negotiations over where to hold the summit and exactly how to frame the policy discussions.

Then there's the personnel question. Will the president have a new secretary of state in place by then? We'll get our first clue on Monday. That's when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the nomination of the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. It appears certain Pompeo will not win majority support in the committee, which hasn't happened to a nominee for secretary of state since 1925. The White House hopes the few Senate Democrats will support Pompeo when the full Senate votes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think Mike Pompeo will go down as one of the great secretary of states. And, by the way, he just left North Korea. He had a great meeting with Kim Jong-un and got along with him really well. So I think that Mike will be in good shape. We'll see what happens. You know, a lot of people are predicting other things, but I have a feeling it's going to work out very well.


[12:30:11] KING: The president thinks it's going to work out very well.