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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT
Mueller Questions Russian Oligarch About Payments to Cohen; Avenatti: Russian Oligarch Gave $500,000 to Michael Cohen; Trump Exits "Horrible" Iran Deal That Didn't Bring Peace. Aired 7-8 p ET
Aired May 8, 2018 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Key words, stay tuned, we're going to stay tuned as well. Erin Burnett OUTFRONT starts right now.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OUTFRONT next, breaking news, a CNN exclusive. The special counsel questioning a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to Michael Cohen after the election. Was that money used to pay Stormy Daniels?
Plus, Trump bails on the Iran deal. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who is now in charge of new sanctions on Iran is our guest tonight OUTFRONT.
And more breaking news, polls closing in four states tonight. It's a big voting night. All eyes on West Virginia. Will the man who say he's Trumpier than Trump win?
Let's go OUTFRONT.
And good evening to al, I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, the breaking news. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team has questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars that his company sent to Michael Cohen after the election. This is according to a source familiar with the matter.
Viktor Vekselberg is the name of the Russian oligarch. You see him there. He has very close ties to Vladimir Putin. He is one of two Russian oligarchs the FBI stopped to question earlier this year when their private jets landed in New York area airports.
Now this questioning was part of Russia's probe. Last month, the Trump administration then placed Viktor Vekselberg on the list of sanctioned Russians. One of the activities that he was sanctioned for included election interference.
Now according to Stormy Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti tonight, the amount of money we're talking about here was roughly $500 and it was paid to Cohen by Vekselberg between January and August of 2017. So all within President Trump's administration.
The first payment, Avenatti says was within 75 days of when Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $135,000 to keep quiet about her alleged affair with the president. Avenatti speculates that these funds may have been used to reimburse Cohen for the $130,000. Whatever they were used for, we're talking about half a million dollars from the -- what he's saying here paid to Michael Cohen from a Russian oligarch who is now sanctioned by Donald Trump's Treasury Department.
Shimon Prokupecz and Kara Scannell are OUTFRONT breaking much of the story tonight. So Shimon, what else can you tell us here? Obviously, it's pretty incredible when you put all of these pieces of this Rubik's cube together.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: It certainly is, Erin. And, you know, what we've been told is that investigators have questioned -- have asked questions of a Russian oligarch, his name is Viktor Vekselbeg. And the questions have come up about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that were made to President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen in 2017.
Now the payment went from Vekselberg's U.S. affiliated company called Columbus Nova, it's a financial company in New York, an investment company. And that company is run -- is affiliated with Vekselberg's American cousin, his name is Andrew Intrater. And now documents that were just posted online by Stormy Daniels attorney, Michael Avenatti, that they allege that half a million dollars was paid to Cohen beginning in January 2017.
And as you said, Erin, last month, a Trump administration put Vekselberg on the list of sanctioned Russians for election interference. It's not clear here what the purpose right now in terms of what these payments that were made to Cohen were for or the nature of the business relationship between Cohen and Vekselberg. And we've reached out to Cohen and Vekselberg and have not yet heard back.
And the fact, you know -- Erin, the fact that these investigators have been scrutinizing this is significant, and that you have a company which is potentially affiliated with a Russian oligarch seems to have been doing business with Michael Cohen here.
BURNETT: I mean, you know, Kara, you know, what more do we know about Vekselberg? You know, he's not one of the commonly, you know, the oligarchs, right? Not Oleg Deripaska, an name that we have heard affiliated with this investigation commonly before. Viktor Vekselberg though now a very important name. What do you know about him and what is it that Mueller and the FBI wanted to know from him?
KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, Erin, Viktor Vekselber is one of the most prominent although maybe not household businessmen in Russia. He built a fortune through the privatization following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the energy and gas space. He once even spent $100 million to purchase Faberge eggs from the Forbes family of the U.S.
Now, he was -- as you said, he's one of the oligarchs that we understand was stopped by Mueller's team and questioned earlier this year, and among the questions that investigators had for him was that they wanted to know about political donations made by his cousin Andrew Intrater who runs this U.S. affiliated company. And Intrater had donated roughly $300,000 to the Trump inauguration, the Trump victory fund and the RNC. [19:05:05] Now, we reached out to them for comment before the story and we didn't hear back, but we just got a comment in, Erin, and I'd like to read it if I can. So from an attorney, we were told, "Columbus Nova is a management company solely owned and controlled by Americans. After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures. Reports today that Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Cohen are false. The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova's engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue. Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova's owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement."
Now, that may be the case, but we know that Mueller's investigators did question Vekselberg about these transaction transactions, so they are at least looking to see what lines -- what connections there might be or what connections there aren't.
BURNETT: Well, interesting. Michael Cohen now -- I mean, not listing this entity as one of his clients, right? Other people, Sean Hannity with his real state investments listed up, but not this American affiliate arm of Veksel -- Viktor Vekselberg.
I mean, Shimon, I guess this kind of begs the most crucial question here. When you're talking about a U.S. company and you're talking about a Russian oligarch, one of the most important oligarchs in Russia. Do we know if there was anything illegal about these payments at this time?
PROKUPECZ: We don't know. And certainly that's probably why investigators are looking at this. It's probably why they went through that unusual step. One of the reasons why they went through that unusual step of stopping Vekselberg at an airport in New York that, you know, we've reported at. He was stopped at an airport and that's when some of the questioning took place.
Look, for them to do that, for the FBI to track him, to follow him until he gets here into the U.S. in New York, in a New York area airport, and then they went and they imaged his cell phones and they wanted to try and talk to him. That is a significant move by the FBI --
PROKUPECZ: -- for whatever reason we don't exactly know a 100 percent why they did that. But that just tells you their concern here and certainly their need. There was a need by the FBI to talk to him.
BURNETT: So Kara, given the significance of this, that the FBI wouldn't have done this for something that they perceived to be nothing, right? There's obviously some sort of level here. Some sort of you know, line that they felt was crossed, that they were going to pursue it and investigate it.
Where do things stand then with the criminal investigation involving Michael Cohen and the southern district of New York where we know he is under criminal investigation. In fact, he was raided by FBI agents.
SCANNELL: That's right, Erin. The prosecutors and with the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan have acknowledged in court that they are conducting a criminal investigation of Cohen's financial dealings. Now, this statement that we received from the company tells us that this was one of his financial dealings.
Now, we don't know if that is one that the southern district of New York is focusing on, but we do know in that case, the judge there presented a -- she decided to create a special master to review all these documents and decide which ones prosecutors can see that are not protected by attorney-client privilege. So the government has already turned over eight boxes of digitized information. About a dozen electronic devices, and the special master said recently in court that they expect to have the government finish with its production by the end of the week.
Now, the judge in the case has set a hearing for later this month, so then we'll have an update on where this review stands, how many of these documents are actually in dispute, and that's something that we'll learn about in about two weeks, Erin.
BURNETT: All right, thank you both very much. Obviously significant developments tonight from Shimon and Kara.
Let's go straight now to the former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Harry Sandick, and the former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.
Harry, I mean, just take a step back here. I understand you've got, you know, this cousin or whatever it is in an American company. Here's the bottom line, you have a company affiliated with one of the most powerful oligarchs in Russia. A Putin insider paying half a million dollars to Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney after the election over a period of months. Well, Michael Cohen was fully well aware that anything involving Russia was very problematic. How does this happen?
HARRY SANDICK, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Yes, even if it's completely innocent, it's an extremely reckless and foolish thing to connect yourself to someone like a Russian oligarch with ties to Putin while you know that there is this ongoing investigation. And, you know, we heard the public statement that they argument is going to be, well, we hired Michael Cohen to do business consulting for us.
Well, the prosecutors and investigators will see if that's true. What is the evidence of the business consulting? Do we see e-mails and business plans and actual work being done? Or we just see payments being made with no work being done. And that will be a key question as to whether these payments are for a real thing or not.
[19:10:00] BURNETT: You know, obviously, Michael Cohen, when he's brought in front of investigators now, says he has three clients, right? President Trump, Sean Hannity --
BURNETT: -- and Elliott Broidy, who of course apparently Cohen paid off the playmate --
BURNETT: -- who said she got pregnant by the RNC donor. OK. These payments were made earlier --
BURNETT: -- but he didn't mention any of -- he certainly didn't mention Viktor Vekselberg or this company, his American arm as (INAUDIBLE) didn't mention that.
SANDICK: Yes. So --
BURNETT: But you're talking half a million dollars.
SANDICK: And so what -- the only thing that we can infer -- well, and not the only thing. One thing we can infer from that is that the work that he was doing was not legal work but some kind of business consulting work. As Kara was talking about the privileged issues, any documents from that relationship would be completely non-privileged and available to be used by the prosecutors for any reasons.
BURNETT: So, no attorney-client privilege in this case. I mean, Renato, does any of this add up to you?
RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: No, it certainly doesn't add up, Erin. It looks very problematic for Michael Cohen. And it really helps me understand why prosecutors in Manhattan maybe looking at Michael Cohen for bank fraud or for campaign finance violations.
I mean, first of all, there was a payment -- this money was not paid directly to Michael Cohen. It was paid to this essential consultant LLC Company that he created that was the vehicle for him to pay Stormy Daniels. So a $130,000 goes from this LLC to Stormy Daniels, and then all of this money comes in later from this company connected to a Russian oligarch.
So, if that payment was connected to the campaign as Rudy Giuliani himself suggested I think at one point, although he later corrected that, then that was money that potentially you could argue was coming from a foreign national that contributed to a campaign. That's one issue here.
And then another is, Michael Avenatti in his, you know, statement that he released today detailing a number of these financial transactions, talked about false statements that Michael Cohen allegedly made to a bank, and that puts you very much in the vicinity --
BURNETT: That's bank fraud, right?
MARIOTTI: -- of bank fraud.
MARIOTTI: Now, it's unclear -- right. It's unclear whether there's sufficient evidence of that, but that certainly in the vicinity. Let's put that it way.
BURNETT: What's the penalty for that, Renato, if that happened?
MARIOTTI: Up to 30 years in prison. And, you know, obviously the typical penalty is less than that. You know, I convicted someone of bank fraud who got I think three or four year, for example, but it's still very significant. It's a felony, it's a very serious crime.
BURNETT: I mean, incredibly serious what you talked about. All right, stay with me.
I want to go now to -- as we're talking about Michael Avenatti, of course Stormy Daniels attorney, who's talking about this payment. He is also making other stunning claims about Cohen as well. And MJ Lee is OUTFRONT. MJ, you've been working on this part of the story. We're talking here about something affiliated with Viktor Vekselberg and you know now more.
MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Erin. This is the allegation that Avenatti is making about Michael Cohen tonight, that Cohen received significant sums of money from various entities after the 2016 election calling into question his business practices. Now, Kara and Shimon just walked you through that first explosive headline that a company controlled by a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg gave around half a million dollars to Cohen soon after the election.
But that's not the end, Erin. According to Avenatti, Cohen also received money from other entities including nearly $400,000 from pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, a $150,000 from Korea Aerospace Industries, and $200,000 from AT&T.
Now the twist to all of this is that the common thread, is that all this money was paid to a bank account that Cohen created in 2016 to pay off Stormy Daniels. This is that hush payment of a $130,000 that we have been talking so much about. So it is intriguing that according to Avenatti, that bank account wasn't only used to pay Stormy Daniels. It also allegedly received significant sums of money after the election.
Now why did he receive these payments? That is what we do not know the answer to yet, Erin.
BURNETT: Which, you know, raises all kinds of questions because when we talk about the timing here, you know, obviously AT&T involved with, you know, a merger that it was trying to push through the Trump administration. Novartis and other, you know, may have a meeting coming up with the president. I mean, have any of these companies said anything to explain why they did this, their intentions, MJ? LEE: Well, we just received this statement from AT&T. Here it is. "Essential Consulting, and actually the correct name for that company is Essential Consultant but that's the statement they gave us, was of the several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal work or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."
So, AT&T is confirming that these payments were made. We know from court filings that Cohen had consulting clients and it appears that he was offering insights into what he knows about the president.
[19:15:02] And I should also note that AT&T is trying to acquire CNN's parent company, Time Warner. The Justice Department sued to prevent that merger in November of last year. And two of the payments from AT&T to Cohen, according to Avenatti remained before the Justice Department sued to block that merger. And we do not have comments yet from the other companies that were listed in Avenatti's memo.
BURNETT: So, OK, MJ, when you take all of this together and we try to figure out what the heck was going on here. What is it mean about the $130,000 payment Stormy Daniels? Do you have any more insight into that now that we're getting all of these other pieces coming in tonight?
LEE: Right, well, first, let me say, CNN has reviewed documents that appear to show that these various payments that Avenatti is talking about, but CNN has not independently authenticated these documents, and if you ask Avenatti, he will say that given the flow of money through this bank account, it is possible that Russian money essentially paid for the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. In fact, here's what Avenatti tweeted earlier tonight. He said, "After significant investigation, we have discovered that Mr. Trump's attorney, Mr. Cohen received approximately $500,000 in the month after the election from a company controlled by a Russian oligarch with close ties to Mr. Putin. These moneys may have reimbursed the $130,000 payment."
Now, we don't know if that is the case, and here's sort of the big picture take away regardless, Erin, is that Michael Cohen is Donald Trump's fixer. He has long been the president's right hand man as you know, and any payment from any company to Cohen deserves our attention because he is someone who was speaking to President Trump and it's as simple as that.
BURNETT: All right, MJ, thank you very much. I mean, just adding up these numbers out there, you know, again as we review these documents. You're looking at, at least $1.3 million, plus as Rudy Giuliani has said what, you're talking about this, you know, tens of thousands of dollars a month coming in from the president himself and a retainer. This is a lot of money coming into Michael Cohen through a -- essentially a shell company, right. Registered in Delaware.
I want to bring in Brian Stelter now. Brian -- and I want to get to this, obviously, because this is a big story out there with Trump's opposition that he had made so public to the AT&T-Time Warner merger. Obviously that involved CNN. AT&T has confirmed it made $200,000 in payments to Michael Cohen, you know, to his consulting company. You know, it raises a lot of questions. What is AT&T saying now?
BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: And I would say, at least $200,000, Erin. Avenatti's documents identify that $200,000 number saying it was $50,000 a month. I'm told by a well placed source that it was actually a higher total number because Cohen's firm was contracted throughout much of 2017. Now, Avenatti is saying this didn't start until late 2017. AT&T saying it started in early 2017.
That matters because when President Trump was elected, 18 months ago tonight, that is when there was immediate speculation about what would happen to the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Of course Time Warner owning CNN, the deal were then reviewed by the Justice Department. There have been questions all along about whether the president himself or the White House tried to interfere in the deal. It was somehow trying to punish CNN by taking on the deal and trying to block it.
Amid all of that, with that as the backdrop, we now know that AT&T essentially hired Cohen as a consultant for what the company says was insights, information. The idea here is that when a new president comes to town, big companies like AT&T want to know how to reach the president. What makes him think, what makes him tick. So you can understand I suppose wanting to hire the president's personal lawyer for that kind of information. But, this certainly raises a lot of questions, and I think there's going to be a lot of scrutiny around this.
On its base, selling access to a president, selling influence is not illegal, but it doesn't look good. And the same as true the other direction. Buying access or buying influence to a president is not illegal, but it does not look good.
BURNETT: No. It certainly doesn't and this raises a lot of questions that need answers tonight. Thank you so much, Brian.
And next, as we continue to cover all of these breaking stories, oil prices swinging wildly because the president today said he's out, calling it quits. Calling Iran a liar, ending the Iranian nuclear deal from the U.S. side. The Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin is my guest OUTFRONT.
And polls about to close. Some crucial elections across the country tonight. Biggest election night since election night. The key race tonight, West Virginia. Coal baron Don Blankenship has the promise there for voters.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DON BLANKENSHIP, CANDIDATE, WEST VIRGINIA SENATE PRIMARY: I'm basically Trumpier than Trump.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: And we'll be right back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [19:23:01] BURNETT: Tonight, President Trump called its quits. The president announcing today that the U.S. is going against its allies and pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump going it alone and imposing new sanctions on the Iranian regime. Here are his words.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT FOF THE UNITED STATES: The fact is this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made. Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie. Last week, Israel published intelligence documents long concealed by Iran conclusively showing the Iranian's regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Already tonight, Iran in response warning it's ready to start nuclear enrichment, quote, without limitations. President Obama whose signature foreign policy achievement was the Iran deal is calling the president's move, quote, so misguided.
And OUTFRONT tonight, the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, the man in charge of U.S. sanctions, which of course are now, you know, back up and running. Secretary, thank you so much for your time tonight.
You know, we just heard the president there say Iran is lying. What exactly did Iran do, Secretary to break the deal?
STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: Well, let me be clear. President Trump has been very consistent since the campaign and since he came into office that this deal was not a good deal. It didn't protect the American people.
He didn't like the fact it didn't have a term. We want to make sure Iran never has nuclear weapons. They don't have them now, they don't have them in 10 years, they don't ever have them. And Iran continues to work on ballistic missiles which can deliver nuclear weapons and support state terrorism. So, the president has been clear, this is about protecting the American public and making sure we have a good deal.
BURNETT: So, I'm just trying to understand, I know he's saying before the deal that he's saying they were dishonest. That's what the prime minister of Israel had said last week. But, you know, your own colleagues, other members of the cabinet, the DNI Chief Dan Coats, secretary of state now, but at the time, CIA chief Mike Pompeo have said specifically when it comes to the deal itself, Iran was in compliance, not in violation.
[19:25:00] Here they are.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it the judgment of the Intelligence Community that Iran has thus far adhered to the deal's major provisions?
DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Yes, it has been -- the judgment is that there are no material breach of the agreement.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have any evidence to dispute the IAEA assessment that Iran is in full compliance with the JCPOA?
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Senator, with the information that I've been provided, I have no -- I've seen no evidence that they are not in compliance today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: So what are the grounds? What is the issue here?
MNUCHIN: Well, again, they're just confirming that they were in compliance with a bad deal. We had limited ability to do inspections. We couldn't go to military bases and even if we could, at the end of 10 years, Iran was going to have nuclear weapons.
So, this is not about whether they were in compliance or they weren't in compliance. This is about keeping America safe. And whether it's North Korea or Iran, President Trump isn't willing to kick the can down the road to have other presidents deal with it. He's taking action now to make sure that we're safe.
And if Iran wants to be b part of the international community, they will commit never to have nuclear weapons. Not create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and stop working on ballistic missiles which they don't need.
BURNETT: Now, look, the deal is far from perfect. I think everybody has admitted that even though as he wrote it, they're saying -- but what it does is give us more visibility than we could have and it's the best deal they could have gotten. You know, you point out, not all mili -- you can't go to military bases without announcing it yourself, but there's no powerful sovereign country in the world that would allow anybody to do that including our own.
Do you really think you're going be able to get that in the terms of a deal to allow inspectors to walk on to an Iranian military base whenever they want?
MNUCHIN: If Iran is sincere in not having nuclear weapons, they will let us inspect properly. But again, there's lots of issues here. I mean, Senator Schumer himself -- I was just looking at his information in 2005, used all the same agree -- arguments as to why he voted against the deal. It was a bad deal in 2005, it's a bad deal today.
And for those people who say we couldn't get a better deal, we don't believe it. So the answer is we're going to put the sanctions back in place. If Iran legitimately wants to become part of the international community, they will sit down with us and our allies and negotiate a legitimate deal that's fair and protects American people.
BURNETT: OK, so the issue then is of course, we're going ahead and putting sanctions back on. You're the guy in charge of that for the United State as the Treasury secretary. Our allies though that you mentioned in Europe are not on board. They were very clear today. They said in a statement, "Together we emphasized our continuing commitment to the JCPOA. That was Germany, that was France, that was the United Kingdom.
You know, now that you're reinstating these sanctions, I guess the best thing you can do is to punish other countries who do business with Iran, right? So the U.S. isn't doing business but if you are, we're going to punish you, we're going to sanction your banks.
Secretary Mnuchin, will you sanction banks that are based in the U.K. or Germany because they're doing business in Iran?
MNUCHIN: Well, this isn't about punishing other countries. I think as you know, we have primary sanctions and secondary sanctions. We've been very careful in putting these in place. We have certain things that there's 90 days to wind down.
MNUCHIN: As it relates to the oil markets which take longer to get supply as we cut off Iran's oil, we have 180 days. So we're going to work with our allies to make sure that there's a careful transition, but the sanctions worked. And we've --
BURNETT: But they worked because --
MNUCHIN: -- had very close discussions --
BURNETT: -- they were on board, right --
MNUCHIN: -- with our allies.
BURNETT: -- Secretary? I mean, the U.K. and France and Germany, they were all on board, but they're not now. So are --
MNUCHIN: Well, they are --
BURNETT: -- or is it the United States that's alone?
MNUCHIN: Again, they are on board with our objectives. So we've had very good discussions with them. They're on board with the issue of the term. They're on board with concerns about ballistic missiles. They're on board with the concerns about state terrorism.
We have slightly different views as to how to execute that. But we're going to work closely with our allies, we all have the common objective, which every American should have and that's to make sure that our children and their children are safe. And that means no nuclear weapons in Iran now. None in seven years, none in 20 years.
BURNETT: So, Secretary, I just want to make sure I got the bottom line. It sounds like you're saying is, they're telling you something very different in private than they're saying publicly.
Publicly, they're saying they support the deal. They think Iran is compliant and they're staying in it. You're saying privately they're telling you the opposite?
MNUCHIN: No, I don't want to say they're saying one thing privately. What they're saying is they wanted to support the deal and add on to the deal. And President Trump's been very clear and careful. He didn't do this when he just came into office.
He was very clear six months ago, he was very clear three months ago. He gave us time to work with our allies. He said he'll give us time, but he was clear.
On behalf of keeping the American people safe, he wasn't going to stick with a bad deal and kick it down the road. And, you know, if Iran is serious, they will sit down and negotiate. We'll see how serious they are and as it relate to our allies, we're going to work very closely with them. As I said, we all have the same objectives, make sure the don't have nuclear weapons. Make sure they stop having ballistic missiles and state terrorism.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Secretary, I want to ask you about some more breaking news this hour. I don't know if you've heard it at the top of our hour, but we are reporting tonight that the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg was questioned about hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to Michael Cohen and he was questioned about that when he arrived earlier this year in the United States by private jet, actually here in the New York area.
First question to you, Treasury Secretary: if a payment or payments like this have been made, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollar, would they have been flagged to the Treasury Department?
MNUCHIN: Well, let me say I got here early for your show, so I was watching that segment. Other than watching you, I was not aware of all this. And comments as regards to what information Treasury does have within the organization and what it doesn't, I can't comment on.
BURNETT: Could you give us more information, though? Because I want to make it clear, you already had sanctioned Viktor Vekselberg, right? You sanctioned a group of Russians in April. Viktor Vekselberg was among them. My understanding is one of your reasons in part was election interference.
Can you tell us anymore about why this individual, this oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, was on your list?
MNUCHIN: Well, as you know, Congress passed a law that with overwhelming support, 98-2 in the Senate, on instructing us to work on a report on sanctions on oligarchs and Russian officials. We were very careful, we took our time, used both classified information and open source information.
I can't go through the specifics of this.
MNUCHIN: But we were very careful. And again, as it relates to the oligarchs, we put some of the toughest sanctions on them. But let me just comment that when it came to Rusal, we weren't trying
to hurt the people of Rusal. We weren't trying to create problems in the aluminum market. And as long as the oligarchs got rid of their position, we're working to deal with these issues.
So, again, sanctions are very powerful tools and we're careful how we use them.
BURNETT: So, obviously, as we're reporting and you're well aware, Secretary, that for the FBI to take a Russian citizen when they come in the United States, pull them aside for questioning is very significant. It's not something they just do. It's a big deal when it happens.
At this time, are you at Treasury working with Bob Mueller at all on information about anything with Victor Vekselberg or payments from Viktor Vekselberg?
MNUCHIN: I can't make my comments as it relates to our sanctions or any (INAUDIBLE) specifics.
But let me just comment. Right now, we have President Trump focused on a summit with North Korea and for the first time we may get rid of nuclear weapons in North Korea. So, this is momentous. We have Secretary Pompeo over there meeting today as we speak. We're negotiating trade with China.
This morning, President Trump and Xi had a very good conversation.
MNUCHIN: They talked about trade. They talked about North Korea. The president is taking strong actions with Iran.
So, whether it's North Korea or whether it's Iran, the president is taking strong actions to protect the American people.
As it relates to this Russian stuff, let's let the stuff get on with and it not be a distraction from what are the really important issues that are affecting us right now.
BURNETT: One final question, Treasury Secretary, if I may. The bottom line here, are you aware at this time of any suspicious bank activity involving Michael Cohen -- Michael Cohen himself specifically and any Russian or Russian owned entities?
MNUCHIN: I'm somewhat surprised that you would ask me to even comment on these things since the actions the treasury takes are completely confidential. So you shouldn't read into this any way. If you ask me about any person, John Smith, anybody else, I wouldn't on national TV comment about specific investigations. That would be completely inappropriate in my position.
BURNETT: All right. Well, I appreciate your taking the time to answer our questions. Obviously, it's an important one, but I respect that you're saying it is classified. Thank you very much. Appreciate your time, Treasury Secretary
MNUCHIN: Thank you.
BURNETT: And next, breaking news. New legal troubles for Michael Cohen. We are learning the Mueller probe, questioning payments, the president's attorney received from a Russian oligarch. That is happening now by Mueller.
And polls just closing in crucial primaries. We've got four states tonight. Will voters in West Virginia keep President Trump's last minute warning not to vote for Don Blankenship?
[19:37:20] BURNETT: Welcome back to OUTFRONT.
We're following the breaking news. A CNN exclusive, special counsel Bob Mueller's investigators have questioned a Russian oligarch about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to his company's U.S. affiliate made to President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. That oligarch Viktor Vekselberg has close ties to Putin and was recently sanctioned by the Trump Treasury Department. He was one of two Russian oligarchs the FBI stopped earlier this year when his private jet landed in New York City as part of Mueller's investigation.
Now, Michael Avenatti, who of course is Stormy Daniels' attorney, says the first payment was made just months after Daniels' payoff took place.
OUTFRONT now, former Clinton White House aide Keith Boykin and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
All right. Keith, obviously, there's a lot of questions here. But let's just start with the crucial thing we know. We know Bob Mueller's team felt this cross to hurdle significantly high enough they stopped this guy when he came into the United States to question him about these payments.
KEITH BOYKIN, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE AIDE: Yes. We know that and we don't know exactly the details of what the payments are for, but we know it wasn't disclosed. I think that's a concern because it's a pattern of contacts of the Trump administration officials have had or Trump related officials have had that have not been disclosed about their contacts with Russia.
And in this case, why is Michael Cohen, the president's attorney receiving money from the Russian oligarch after the election, after we know that there was Russian interference and after the intelligence community had reported on this, while Trump was still denying that there was Russian interference in our elections. It suggests that there was some sort, I don't want to say payoff, but at least a quid pro quo, which needs to be investigated. The only way to lift this cloud is if Trump comes forward and complies fully with the investigation that Robert Mueller is engaging in.
BURNETT: I mean, Ken Cuccinelli, can you -- if you got hundreds of thousands of payments coming from a company that's affiliated with a Russian oligarch, I mean, are you also scratching your head and going what the heck was Michael thinking?
KEN CUCCINELLI, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I'd like to know a lot more about it.
CUCCINELLI: The one reasonable explanation would be it was part of business, but you know, we don't know anything other than the reporting that hundred of thousands was paid.
BURNETT: Right, so we don't know what the business would have been.
CUCCINELLI: I would -- right. And that's right. And when you're dealing with an attorney much like the treasury secretary as you were asking him, when you ask him about an investigation, you're going get the answer he gave, right? It was the right answer.
Look, I can't say anything about whether it exists or not.
CUCCINELLI: And if it did, I couldn't -- I couldn't comment on it. An attorney is in the same position with respect to clients.
[19:40:00] Now, Michael Cohen has been --
BURNETT: I think what the clear understanding this was not an attorney-client relationship, Ken. This was a consulting relationship.
CUCCINELLI: I don't think that's clear.
BURNETT: I'm not talking about the treasury secretary, of course. They wouldn't talk about an investigation.
CUCCINELLI: Right, right, right.
BURNETT: I'm saying, why we wouldn't have some honesty and transparency here from Michael Cohen, right? This is -- there is no attorney-client privilege. This is business consulting.
CUCCINELLI: Well, I don't know that that's the case. I've seen that comment that he was attempting to do consulting. And that he's got -- he being Michael Cohen -- has identified seven clients that he had and didn't connect those yet to this Russian oligarch.
So, we still have what this has done as so often happens in this situation is it has raised more questions.
CUCCINELLI: And it's going to take a little while because Michael Cohen is not under any compulsion to answer these things, and he's in natural one to answer these questions if he's compelled to do so. It's not clear about how he would be compelled to do so yet because it has to be part of some investigation. Mueller is the obvious one, well, or the ongoing investigation in the Southern District of New York. Actually, Mueller handed that off.
CUCCINELLI: So, it's in the hands right now of another U.S. attorney.
BURNETT: And could there be, Keith, anything significant in the fact Mueller did hand it off?
BOYKIN: It could indicate that Mueller didn't think it was part of his purview in his investigation.
BOYKIN: Or it could be that he felt it was more appropriate to be handled by the Southern District. I'm not sure. I think we'd be speculating on that.
But I do want to go back to the whole question of why was Michael Cohen involved in this relationship at all, whether it's illegal relationship or a business relationship. This is a man who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government even though he hadn't at the time when the initial payments began. He has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
He was -- he had close ties to Vladimir Putin. That was well-known. He was at the RT dinner in 2015 with Michael Flynn.
BURNETT: Right, Russia Today, which is, you know, the propaganda arm at least considered by U.S. intelligence. The propaganda arm of the Russian government.
BOYKIN: All of these signs, the bells and whistles should have gone off, the attorney for the president-elect of the United States and the president of the United States not to do a business deal with this guy, but he did so anyway. And it suggests that either Michael Cohen has bad judgment or Trump himself had bad judgment by picking Michael Cohen to be his attorney.
BURNETT: Yes, I mean when you add all this up -- go ahead, Ken.
CUCCINELLI: Yes, two quick points. One I think Michael Cohen has demonstrated pretty thoroughly to us that he does in fact often have bad judgment. That's one.
Two, when Mueller handed that the Southern District of New York -- to Southern District of New York, the Cohen matter and then you compare their argument last week in the Eastern District of Virginia and the Manafort case, they were arguing a phenomenally broad mandate to allow themselves to proceed with the Manafort prosecution. Now, Judge Ellis did not seem inclined to accept that.
But when you look at how broad Mueller's team is arguing, to then see them hand off the Cohen piece suggests to me that they don't think Cohen had anything to do at the time they handed it off with the Russian investigation. So, unless something new has arisen and perhaps this oligarch is the something new, up to that point in time, it looked like Mueller's team didn't think Cohen was connected to any Russian involvement.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you both very much.
And next, it is primary night in America. The polls now closed. First results coming in. The question in West Virginia: will voters embrace a candidate who claims to be Trumpier than Trump? John King at the magic wall, next.
[19:47:56] BURNETT: Breaking news, the biggest day at the polls since the presidential election day. Polls just closing tonight in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia and many eyes are on the primary in West Virginia at this moment.
President Trump and top Republicans are -- you know, have been telling voters, warning them, that they shall not vote for Don Blankenship who's a Republican candidate. He's running against two other Republicans for the Senate. So, it's a crucial primary.
Blankenship, though, stealing all of the thunder. A coal baron who spent a year in prison after 29 miners were killed in one of his mines. He's also made race-based attacks against the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DON BLANKENSHIP (R), WEST VIRGINIA SENATE CANDIDATE: I have an issue when the father-in-law is, you know, is a wealthy China person.
I don't see this insinuation by the press that there's something racist about saying China person. Some people are Korean persons and some of them are African persons. It's not any slander there.
I will beat Joe Manchin and ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.
I'm basically Trumpier than Trump.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: OK, unfortunately for Blankenship, Trump does not agree and does not agree and does not want him to win. He tweeted to West Virginia voters, quote: Don Blankenship currently running for Senate can't win the general election in your state. No way. Continued to say, remember Alabama.
Let's go to John King first. He's at the magic wall to break this race down.
John, this is a crucial race when we talk about this primary. What are you looking at?
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm looking number one to test the appeal of that outsider. Yes, Don Blankenship is an outsider. Yes, just like Donald Trump, he says anyone with a title, his top two rivals, are congressman and the state attorney general. He says don't trust anybody with a title. Sound familiar? That's what Donald Trump did against Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio et cetera.
So, part of it is the outsider appeal. But part of it is -- will the Republicans nominate as you just noted, a candidate, the president of the United States and everybody else in the Republican leadership thinks will be a disaster in a state West Virginia where Republicans have a very good chance to pick up a seat in what they expect otherwise to be a very tough year. Five or six states now held by Democratic senators Republicans have a chance.
[19:50:00] Erin, just to show you the early results. You see this up, don't read anything into this. Early result, just in, it's a few hundred votes, Patrick Morrissey, the state attorney general at 70 percent, Don Blankenship, he's the coal executive, at 9.5, Evan Jenkins, the congressman, 9.5.
I just want to tell you, the results that are in right now with Jefferson County, that is where Patrick Morrissey lives. So, he's running it up in his home county. Let's take a breath and wait for the results to come in.
But the Republican establishment is panicked tonight. You've played the clip there. He calls Mitch McConnell married to a China person. He says he's Cocaine Mitch.
If that's not racist, I don't know what it is. It's race-baiting, and Mitch McConnell thinks he would be a disaster to the point, if Blankenship wins tonight, Erin, do not be surprised when the Republican Party says it's not going to send any money in here.
This state is in the top two or three of their targets this year, and it is potential tonight, if Don Blankenship wins this race, that the Republican Party says, forget about it, and essentially, sends no national party money in, ceding it to Joe Manchin. Blankenship says he can still win. We'll see.
But it is fascinating race. Yes, a test of outsider, a test of money, too. I should note this: Blankenship, yes, he's an outsider message, he's also spending a lot more money.
Here's Attorney General Morrissey, here's Congressman Jenkins. This is the Democrat up here. In the Republican primary, it is these three that count. He's spending two to one plus over all of his rivals. So, is it the outsider message, more money? Going to count the votes.
BURNETT: So, now, you talk about West Virginia which is going to be so important. Indiana, also, polls there close at the top of the hour, as we await results. What is the latest there? That is another important one.
KING: Some of the polls have already closed in Indiana. So, let me bring that up for you because we're getting some results. And again, this is one of those handful of seats. Democrat Joe Manchin in Virginia. Democrat Joe Donnelly in Indiana, a state -- Donald Trump won West Virginia by 40-plus. Donald Trump won Indiana by 19.
Republicans think and what they think will otherwise be a bad year, here's a chance to pick up some seats, get a Republican in the Senate seat now held by Democrats. Very similar dynamic. Keep an eye on this dynamic. Congressman Todd Rokita, Congressman Luke Messer, businessman Mike Braun, the outsider.
Yes, he served in the state legislature, but he is running like Donald Trump, more subtle saying, I'm a businessman, they're cardboard cutouts he says. Look at this. He is at 41 percent with almost 40 percent of the vote.
And, Erin, these margins have held essentially since 1 percent of the vote was in. As more votes come in, the margin has barely moved. So, Mike Braun, businessman outsider, again running it up to be the Republican nominee. I just want to show you, some of it is the outsider message, but not to overplay it, money.
Mike Braun spending his own money. Look how much he has put into the race compared to the Republican congressman and the other Republican congressman. So, the outsider message has appeal, but guess what? Money helps.
BURNETT: Sure does. Follow the money, we'll see how much that proves to be the path to victory tonight.
Thank you, John King.
So, now, let's bring in our political director David Chalian, our chief political correspondent Dana Bash, former adviser to four presidents, David Gergen, and "New York Times" columnist, David Bruni.
David Chalian, let me start with you. You just heard John going through these two crucial races, West Virginia and Indiana. Do you think Don Blankenship will be celebrating tonight despite Trump's best efforts?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I don't know. We're going to count the votes as they come in. But it is certainly a possibility, Erin.
And to underscore what John King just said, which would be so important. If Don Blankenship who Mitch McConnell and Republicans in Washington fear would be a terrible general election nominee, they think he can't win November, if they just write off this state, that is going to dramatically alter the landscape and Democratic chances of keeping the Senate in play, because you have these five states, Indiana and West Virginia are two of them where Donald Trump won by double digits, where Democrats are running for re-election.
And that is the best opportunity that Republicans have to hold their majority or possibly expand it. And if they just give up on one of them, that would be quite a dramatic development in the overall battle for these midterms this year.
BURNETT: So, Dana, you know, I played some of the things that Blankenship said, and I know you had a chance to speak with him. So, I just want to give our viewers a little more of a feel for Don Blankenship, in case they failed to get one from what we played because he is consistent. Here he is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLANKENSHIP: Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people. While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars. Mitch and swamp people are now running false negative ads against me. I will beat Manchin and ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: All right. So, you had a chance, Dana, to speak with Blankenship and he is unapologetic about those comments, right? He thinks they are working. And maybe they are.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. I spent a couple of days down on the campaign trail, much of it with Blankenship and he is apologetic. He also is reminding everybody as much as he can, reminding everybody, even though he is a businessman and he certainly has lot of baggage, not the least of which that he just got out of jail for a misdemeanor around a coal mine disaster where 29 West Virginians died.
[19:55:06] So, that's some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. But on the flip side, he is Trumpier than Trump. I mean, I listened to him before he even sort of coined that term and he sounded a lot like the candidate I followed around in 2016. Lacks the charisma certainly, but has the same kind of M.O.
And remember, this is a state where Donald Trump won by 42 percentage points, 42 percentage points. The other two candidates are politicians. One is an attorney general, one is a congressman.
And look, I mean, it's sad to say there is a reason why Don Blankenship is continuing to say these things, because it is -- it sells in a certain sector of the population who hears that and says, you know what, this is not just -- not necessarily race, but it's against the establishment. It's against the deep state.
And that is something that he has really been able to take off with. We'll see if he can get over that final hurdle.
BURNETT: So, I mean, David Gergen, you end up with another Roy Moore situation here?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You could.
BURNETT: Possibly. I mean, you know, you have the -- wins the primary and then, well, here we go.
GERGEN: In the strangest of strange years, you know, it really is unbelievable that the control of the Senate could turn upon how well a man does tonight who just came out of prison, you know, which a lot of kids died. Have we really come to a point in our politics that a guy like Blankenship could determine the outcome of the Senate?
I think we are. I think that's exactly what we are. My bet is he loses. I think it's more likely than not he'll lose.
I think Trump was smart to jump in to this thing. But I also think we're getting a glimpse maybe of a post-Trump world, guys like Blankenship around when Trump leaves the stage where he will one day, and we all wonder, where do we go after that? There are a lot of people out there who are Trumpier than Trump.
BURNETT: And now feel they can come out and run.
Frank, let me just -- you know, he has been taking out some radio ads and, in fact, he's been embracing that people call him a racist. Let me play a quick clip of a radio ad and get your reaction to this.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
BLANKENSHIP: They are calling me a bigot, a moron, a despicable character, and mentally ill. But even if all this is true, I will do a better job that they have done.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
FRANK BRUNI, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: Not disputing it, saying if it's true.
You know, it's ironic that Trump ultimately came out with this tweet saying, don't vote for him, because he is a monster that Trump created. Trump may now realize that he's someone who, if he's graduate to the general election, is not going to win, and could cost the Republican control of the Senate.
But this sort of campaign, this sort of in your face thing, this thumbing your nose at the establishment and even indulging and celebrating accusations of bigotry, this is a monster creation by Donald Trump. He opened the Pandora box here and now, he's trying to close it and if it's too little too late, it's his fault.
He also mind you didn't weigh in until the final days and in that tweet of his, he didn't say vote for one of these other candidates. So, it was not particularly effective.
BURNETT: Right, he was just, don't vote for this guy.
But, you know, this whole like running to be like Trump is sort of amazing, right? You have Blankenship saying I'm Trumpier than Trump. So, Trump tried to disown, whatever maybe the case. I mean, in Indiana, they're just fighting to see who loves Trump more. Here are the three of them are.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLI.P)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald Trump deserves a Noble Peace Prize.
MIKE BRAUN (R), INDIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: Donald Trump was right. We need fewer career politicians in Washington.
TODD ROKITA (R), INDIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm Todd Rokita and I proudly stand with our president and Mike Pence to drain the swamp.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: They are all supporters, Dana, to say the least, right? It's who can love Trump more.
BASH: Yes, this is, the president's margin in Indiana was smaller, but it is still very much a Trump county particularly among the Republican electorate and that's what the fight is right now, who's going to be the Republican nominee.
And you know, we have this big picture look at the fight for the house in November and the Senate but particularly the House. This day is a situation where they're running towards him because he is still quite popular among the base.
CHALIAN: I think we got a hint to the poll as to why. Our brand new CNN poll out this week shows that among Republicans, who do you trust to handle the major issues? Sixty-four percent of Republicans say President Trump, only 26 percent of Republicans say the Republicans in Congress, their majority leader, their speaker.
This is a party that is in Donald Trump's image right now. And note, as Frank Bruni was talking about the tweet in West Virginia, Donald Trump did not say don't vote for Don Blankenship because he says offensive things or would be a bad representative for the party, he just said he don't want you to vote for him because he doesn't think he can win.
BURNETT: Right. Well, and that's Trump, right? It is transactional, about wins and losses. Thank you all very much.
And thanks all of you for joining us.
"AC360" starts now.