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White House Targets Staff Leakers; Interview With Stormy Daniels Attorney Michael Avenatti; Conway: Staff Changes Coming To White House As Result Of Leaks. Meghan McCain: Leaks Are A Sign Of Disloyalty. Cast For Hamilton Performs For George H.W. Bush. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 15, 2018 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: He has arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he is visiting his wife, Melania Trump.

As you may recall, she was admitted at Walter Reed yesterday to have surgery to treat a benign kidney condition. The first lady's office says that the first lady will remain at the hospital for the rest of the week.

CNN has confirmed that a wealthy Qatari businessman, Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, did in fact attend meetings with Trump transition officials in December 2016 and that the president's potential lawyer Michael Cohen briefly popped in during at least one of the meetings.

Over the weekend, Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for adult film actress Stormy Daniels, tweeted photos of Rumaihi and Cohen from that day.

Joining me right now is Mr. Michael Avenatti.

Thanks so much for joining us.

A spokesperson for Rumaihi told CNN today that they did meet, the president, his team, his transition team officials there, meeting with Rumaihi. They said this is simply Qataris trying to gather relevant information about the incoming administration, that Michael Cohen simply popped in.

What would be wrong with that?

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: Well, Jake, I think that that is completely bogus.

First of all, if you look at the video that we made a reference to, you see Michael Cohen walk into the lobby of Trump Tower with the Qatari nationals, get on the elevator with them.

I just do not believe that he just -- quote -- "popped in," whatever that means. I think that is a very unusual choice of a term -- or word, I should say, in an official statement.

What is Michael Cohen doing in this meeting or popping in, even if that were true, or escorting these individuals through the lobby? It doesn't make any sense. He doesn't have a role in the transition. He doesn't have a role in the administration. He's not a registered lobbyist. He's not a registered foreign agent.

He has no business meeting with these individuals, unless he's trying to get another payday or curry favor or get something out of it. It doesn't add up, Jake.

TAPPER: So, what -- how might this revelation connected in any way to Stormy Daniels have anything to do with the case that you brought forward in terms of her nondisclosure agreement or the effort at intimidating her or the effort to pay her off?

What is the relevance of the Qatari nationals and Michael Cohen coming to Trump Tower?

AVENATTI: Well, Jake, I think, ultimately, we may have relevance as it relates to Essential Consultants, LLC, and that bank account that we have been spending so much time talking about.

But, regardless, Jake, here is where we're at right now. We are a repository of information. People continue to reach out to us, and for good reason, to supply us with information. This is a search for the truth.

And if we come about information that we think should be disclosed to the American people and to the press, we are going to disclose it. Now, if people aren't interested, they are not going to pay any attention to it. And if the press isn't interested in it, they are not going to report on it.

But I think what we're seeing is, is that with each thing that we disclose, people are highly interested, and for good reason, because they have a right to know what the president's right-hand personal attorney was doing during this time period.

TAPPER: You say that the full story of this has not been told. What does that mean? Do you have more information on Michael Cohen that has yet to be released?

You seem to be painting a picture of Michael Cohen, the attorney for President Trump, president-elect Trump at the time, taking in all sorts of money from all sorts of interests, some money, whether it is that money that came in or some other money, going out, whether it is paid to a Playboy model who was pregnant or Stormy Daniels or anyone else.

Put us -- put this picture together for us. What exactly are you suggesting?

AVENATTI: Well, what we're suggesting is -- there's multiple aspects of what we're suggesting, Jake.

First of all, you have Michael Cohen, the personal attorney to the president, who is selling access to the president of the United States, including to individuals that have foreign interest, without being a registered lobbyist, without being a registered foreign agent.

You have Michael Cohen, who appears to be engaged in some highly questionable banking transactions in this bank account that he established in October of 2016 for the purpose of paying the $130,000 to my client. We have yet to see exactly how that money was reimbursed or who reimbursed it.

It appears to us that the first dollars to come back into that account came at the direction of a Russian oligarch. I mean, there is a whole host of questions that we have raised by way of the evidence and the facts that we have released over the last seven to 10 days.

And Michael Cohen and his counsel could clear all of this up if there were legitimate explanations for it by releasing the bank records and coming clean. But we're not seeing that. And that should tell the American people and that should tell the press a lot.

TAPPER: One last question for you, sir.

The special counsel is probing any connections that President Trump or associates of his that may have had with Russia, including business dealings.

Michael Cohen was asked specifically about this by Sean Hannity in 2017. Take a listen.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL TO DONALD TRUMP: No, there is no relationship. The last time that there was any activity between the Trump Organization -- actually, it really wasn't even the Trump Organization.


It was the Miss Universe Pageant was held in Moscow.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: When was that?

COHEN: Six years ago.


TAPPER: We know that that is not true. Cohen was, in fact, pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow while Trump was a candidate for president. He had even tried to reach out to the Kremlin for help.

What does that tell you?

AVENATTI: Michael Cohen would not know the truth if it fell out of the sky and landed on his head and knocked him to the sidewalk, Jake.

This guy lost track of what the truth was probably a decade ago. That is what I will say about that.

TAPPER: Michael Avenatti, thank you so much. Good to see you, sir. Appreciate it.

AVENATTI: Thank you.

TAPPER: A presidential preoccupation with leaks, as men in suits sweep the West Wing to route out the -- quote -- "traitors and cowards" holding onto their personal cell phones.

What other extraordinary measures might they be taking at the White House? Stay with us.


TAPPER: And welcome back.

President Trump continuing to focus on leaks coming from inside the West Wing. Rather than simply apologizing for the cruel comments made by special assistant to the president Kelly Sadler about John McCain dying of brain cancer, the White House seems primarily focused on how her comment was leaked to the press.


It comes as CNN's Jeff Zeleny has remarkable new details about just how far the White House is going to try to prevent any more leaks.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Outside the Capitol today, President Trump paying respect to slain law enforcement officers.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You are the greatest. You are our heroes.

ZELENY: But inside the Capitol, it is the lack of respect the White House is showing to Senator John McCain that is enraging fellow Republicans.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I don't understand it, why you just don't apologize and move on. That would be easier do.

ZELENY: Six days after a White House aide sparked outrage by saying it doesn't matter what McCain thinks about CIA nominee Gina Haspel because he's dying anyway, the president finally weighing in, not to condemn the remark, but to blast who leaked it.

"The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive overexaggeration in order to make us look as bad as possible," the president tweeted, adding, "Leakers are traitors and cowards and we will find out who they are."

In the halls of the West Wing, that hunt is already under way. Months after the White House banned personal cell phones, CNN has learned that rare sweeps are being done to track down personal devices employees may be still using in the billing. Sources familiar with the speech say White House employees dressed in

suits carrying large handheld devices scanned for phones that aren't government-issued. Senior adviser Kellyanne Conway making it very clear that anyone who leaks is a bad actor.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: It is not so much leaking as using the media to shiv each other.

ZELENY: She also said the recent leak could lead to personnel changes.

While several Republicans have called the comments denigrating and insensitive--

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I find them to be offensive and I think more indicative of what our politics has become.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: The best way for this to be put to rest -- and it should have happened immediately -- would have been for the White House to issue a public apology to the entire McCain family.

ZELENY: -- no senator raised the issue directly with the president as he attended the weekly GOP lunch today.

As he left the Capitol, the president ignoring questioning about McCain.

QUESTION: Sir, has the White House apologized to John McCain?


ZELENY: So, this just proved once again Republicans are often willing to say things from afar about the president or about the White House, but when he was face to face for more than an hour at that lunch today, this did not come up at all.

One Republican in the room, Jake, told me that he filibustered the meeting. He talked and talked and they didn't have time to ask. I'm not sure if that is the reason or not, though, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

My panel is back with me.

Mary Katharine Ham, how can the White House stop leaks? Obviously, they are doing everything they can in terms of banning personal cell phones, in terms of scanning people to try to find out if they have them, investigating leaks. How do you do it?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The best way I think would be if there was a management situation that made people feel like they were all same-teaming this thing and not in a circular firing squad and not sniping at each other using the media.

But that is not the management style of any Trump organization that has ever existed. And it has long been the management style of this White House that people feel in danger and they feel like backbiting gets them somewhere and they often feel like bad behavior gets them somewhere.

And so I think it is just a fight for their lives to some extent in there. And because of -- again, because of the bunker mentality, they don't know how to break out. And I just think it is unhealthy and it's not a good way of getting things done.

TAPPER: But he does like conflict and he does like chaos. It's how he's run every organization he has ever run.


So, this is another unforced error that the White House has brought upon themselves, due to the way that they organized this poorly put together ship.

Look, I'm a communications person. I work in press shops right now. I have ran a press shop. I do not like leaks, as the press person.

Like, I understand why Kellyanne Conway is upset. I understand why Sarah Huckabee Sanders is mad. But the way you crack down on leaks is to not have the environment where people feel like they want to leak. And that is the only way this is going to be taken care of.

And I don't think the environment is going to change any time soon at the White House. And because of that, we will continue to see people run to the press on deep, deep background and off the record with information that they feel as though folks should have.

TAPPER: Mary Katherine, take a listen to Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, talking about the leaks coming out of the White House.


CONWAY: I had several discussions with the president on this very topic today.

QUESTION: Do you expect personal changes as a result?

CONWAY: I do. Actually, yes, I do.


TAPPER: So, she's suggesting that there are going to be people -- I think she's suggesting people are going to be fired or at least assigned to different offices.

HAM: Or start impersonating the person they think might get fired to put them on -- and leak something there.

Look, there is sort of a -- in a lot of the messaging, not this particular one, thankfully, there is a sort of missed point, which is, these are your people. This is your house.

TAPPER: Right. Right.


HAM: It is not in order. And that is why people are leaking.

So, this is your responsibility. And perhaps the cracking down or changes in -- in staffing might do that.

[16:45:04] But I do -- I think this might just turn -- turn into another round of competitive leaking.

SANDERS: Well, my question is, who are they going to get to work at the White House, M.K.? Clearly, nobody wants to work there now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Do you think that nobody wants to work? There are people that would want to work there.

SANDERS: Yes, look, I think that there are -- I have very talented and credible Republican friends and there are many, many people I know, communications folks because as we know, this White House needs communication individuals that do not want to go in the White House because the President has a difficult principle, because of the way the White House press shop is set up and because they don't feel like the work environment is a workable work environment. And so, you can fire all the leakers you want in the administration, at some point you won't -- you have to replace those people and I am concerned or confused about who the White House thinks are they going to replace them with.

TAPPER: All right, we got a lot more to talk about so stick around. Coming up, we're going to talk more about the White House leaks and other situations and whether or not this is a problem that President Trump brought on himself. Stay with us.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: I'm back with my panel. And before the break we were talking about President Trump's focus on leaks from his White House, his preoccupation with who leaked the story of one of his aides disparaging John McCain joking about him dying of brain cancer as opposed to why was the comment made. Meghan McCain, John McCain's daughter was on the View talked about earlier today how her father never have that problem, people didn't leak about them because they respected him and they liked him. Take a listen.


MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: It's always a sign of a bad campaign or a bad candidate or a bad politician when you have rampant leaking problems because it shows that you don't have loyalty to the principal (INAUDIBLE) You got to look in your own house on that one.


TAPPER: Is that an issue, do you think, Symone? Is the problem with all of the leaks coming from the White House that people don't actually feel loyalty necessarily to President Trump?

SANDERS: Well, I'm not here for folks working in the White House taking a loyalty pledge to the President but I do think that there should be some level of respect for the principal that you work for. And yes, you do see leaks coming out of this White House and I think other places when people lose respect for the person, the position and the work that is happening inside of that environment and I absolutely believe that's what's happening in the Trump administration.

TAPPER: We've seen two -- really two different kinds of leaks and this is Kellyanne Conway's formulation, not mine. One of them you might call the more personal leaks, leaks to hurt people, Secretary of State Tillerson calling President Trump a moron for example. And then there is the kind of leak that seems to come from national security officials who are concerned about President Trump, like the leak that President Trump told two Russian diplomats in the Oval Office, I fired Comey and now the pressure is off me. Both of them would suggest putting things other than loyalty to President Trump at heart.

HAM: Yes, and for different reasons. And look, I'm sympathetic to the notion that inside a White House you want to be able to have some frank conversations and not have all that out there and that sometimes that is necessary. But again, this is a problem of their own making. And it's not just the loyalty part of it. Although that's part of it but like it's this every man for himself ethos, that actually you see a lot of the end of campaigns for instance when it looks like something is going down, I would note, like the Palin --

TAPPER: The McCain-Palin campaign.

HAM: That campaign where it looks like something is going down and everybody is like, well, I have to find my position and I got to get my money and so they start making these statements so that they could put themselves in a better position for post this campaign. In this case, it's a White House and it's in its first year. So that is a real big problem.

TAPPER: President Trump had a tweet in which he seemed to suggest two contradictory messages. I don't know if you can believe that or not. The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put up by the fake media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards and we will find out who they are. So I mean, either the leaks are from traitors and cowards revealing something really awful about the White House, or we're making them up, they're exaggerating and I can't --

HAM: It went from chilled to very hot very fast.

SANDERS: No, I wonder if the President thinks we were stupid. I literally do. I wonder if literally think that he could say and tweet anything that he would like to and just because it comes from his Twitter account or one of the principals that he sends out in front of the T.V. cameras that the American people will take it as truth. And I think what we are finding out is that's not necessarily the case. Now the question is, do people care and does it matter and will it matter electorally. I think the election in 2017 have come to note that it matters was some Democrat-leaning folks and some independents and so they're going to out to the polls. I wonder if this will matter to folks in the midterm election. I think it will. I think the Republicans are going to lose their jobs.

TAPPER: You know what's interesting about the word "traitor" is that the thing that come forth in my mind is what it reminded me of is when Steve Bannon in Fire and Fury, the Michael Wolff book said that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower was treasonous. Not the same word as traitor but that's what when I think of the word traitor, I think of what President Trump has used to describe Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, Steve Bannon used to describe his son. Now he's talking about his own staffers leaking as traitors.

HAM: And again, these are the people that you hired. And it's a very -- it's a very -- it's a very narrow hiring process there. Like he gets a lot of say. And that's part of the reason it's been slow to get people in a lot of positions. And so you have kind of have to take some of the blame for that if you are hiring the very best people and the very best people end up being in his words, traitorous leakers.

TAPPER: It's just amazing though, a president calling some his own staffers traitors and cowards. I don't think I've ever seen that before, I've said every day. Anyway, thanks so much Symone and Mary Katharine. The surprise President George H.W. Bush just got, stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: A wonderful surprise for 93-year-old former President George H.W. Bush. The former president tweeted photos of himself surrounded by the cast and crew of the wonderful musical Hamilton at his office in Houston, Texas. Just last month President Bush was in the hospital in intensive care only days after the funeral service for his beloved wife Barbara Bush. It seems 41 is doing much better. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Don't forget to pick up a copy of my new novel the Hellfire Club at your local bookstore or on that's it for THE LEAD. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks so much for watching. See you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, scuttling the summit.