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Husband of Kellyanne Conway Defends Mueller Investigation; Judge Approves $85 Billion AT&T-Time Warner Deal; Trump: North Korea Not a Nuclear Threat Anymore; Sen. Corker: "GOP Leadership Relationship with Trump "Cultish"; Michael Cohen Splits from Legal Team. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired June 13, 2018 - 11:30   ET



[11:30:01] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: For a president who does not like to be questioned or criticized, criticism is coming from a surprising place, the husband of counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway. George Conway has had a lot to say on Twitter about President Trump. From March, trolling the White House after a report that aides are often undercut in public statements by the president. Conway tweeted, "So true, it's absurd, which is why people are banging down the door to be his coms director." In May, he told the president in a tweet about FEC rules after Rudy Giuliani revealed the president had reimbursed his attorney, Michael Cohen, $130,000 for the payout to porn star, Stormy Daniels.

And now his latest, a lengthy essay titled, "The Terrible Arguments Against the Constitutionality of the Mueller Investigation," the column, the direct response to President Trump's continued declaration that Mueller appointment was unconstitutional. George Conway writing, "The constitutional arguments made against the special counsel do not meet that standard and have little more rigor than the tweet that promoted them. Such a lack of rigor, sadly, has been a disturbing trend in much of the politically charged discourse about the law lately."

Joining me now is Norm Eisen, CNN contributor, former White House ethics czar under President Obama, and Walter Shaub, CNN contributor and former director of the Office of Government Ethics under President Obama and President Trump.

Great to see you both.

Walter, what's going on here?

WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, GOVERNMENT ETHICS OFFICE: Conway has been a fairly consistent critic of the president. He doesn't seem to share his wife's views. He was, at one point, up for consideration to be the head of the civil division at the Department of Justice and walked away because of their differences of opinion. And I think he's made a principal stand here in which he lays out a cogent case for why the Mueller investigation is constitutional and goes so far as to point out how silly the contrary arguments are.

BOLDUAN: Norm, for a president who says, if you hit him, he hits back harder, how has George Conway escaped his fire?

NORM EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it is awkward for the president to blast back at the spouse of a member of his own administration. The important thing here is, however, is not that Conway is a staff spouse of a very senior White House official. The important thing here is what Conway is saying is totally controversial. Maybe that's why he escaped. Of course, the special counsel is constitutional. It's been found that way again and again, in DOJ opinions, court opinions, and there's no authority to the contrary. The president's views are so bizarre and outside the mainstream. Maybe he's ashamed to highlight that by fighting with Kellyanne Conway's husband.

BOLDUAN: But, Walter, as we know from the primary, oh, so not that long ago, Donald Trump does not see spouses as off limits. Just ask Ted Cruz. What's the case that Kellyanne Conway has to make behind closed doors here?

SHAUB: I don't know. I don't know if she is making a case. She seems to have a privileged status in the White House. She freely violated the Hatch Act on two occasions and was found to have done so by an agency led by an appointee appointed by President Trump. And while I was at the Office of Government Ethics, she violated the ethics regulations. On three occasions, she's violated law and regulations related to government ethics and been given a free pass every single time. She certainly is held high in the president's esteem, so high that she appears to be above the law.

BOLDUAN: Norm, as you noted, Kellyanne Conway is in a very tough spot here. She clearly doesn't want to talk about this. We've seen that. But this is high up to think of it. If David Axelrod's wife was a prominent D.C. attorney and wrote a column that directly criticized then-President Obama on a critical issue, we would be talking about it and so would Republicans.

[11:35:17] EISEN: Yes. But having worked closely with President Obama and David Axelrod, I can tell you that, other than a wry smile, that would have been par for the course, and that's probably the way it should be. Maybe this is a new escalation by George Conway, an extended argument. Again, nothing controversial about it. What's bizarre is Trump's view that Mueller is unconstitutional. Trump will say anything. Maybe this new escalation will draw a response. But I think it is proper for us to separate, in this day and age, between what one spouse does or says even inside the White House, and what another one does in their private capacity.

Maybe for once, Trump is acting with a tinge of dignity that, as you point out, has been so lacking, when he confronted Andy McCabe, the former FBI deputy, about his wife, when he attacked the looks of Ted Cruz's wife, when he's gone after other spouses. But maybe he's finally doing the right thing here. So we'll just have to see if the new escalation draws a new response.

BOLDUAN: And just wait for the next George Conway column.

Great to see you both. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SHAUB: Thank you.

EISEN: Thanks for having me.

BOLDUAN: Is there a cult-like relationship between Republican leaders and President Trump, as Senator Bob Corker, Republican Senator Bob Corker now says? Can we sleep well at night knowing that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat, as the president says? Republican Senator Rob Portman joins me next.


[11:41:19] BOLDUAN: A federal judge ruled that AT&T can move forward with its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. It's a decision that could have far-reaching effects for so many companies, and the content that you watch and the content you consume on your television and phones.

Here with me now, Brian Stelter, CNN senior media correspondent, host of "RELIABIEL SOURCES."

Brian, the judge even warned the government against filing an appeal.


BOLDUAN: Is this the final word? Where is the final word?

STELTER: This is likely to be the final word. The government has not decided yet whether to appeal or whether to ask for a delay of the ruling while it works on an appeal. Those kinds of moves are common. But, yes, the judge in this case discouraged the government from doing so because the process has already taken 600 days and cost an enormous amount of money. The real benefit, the people that really benefit here are the lawyers from all sides who racked up a lot of fees. Other than that, this has dragged on for a long time. And it does appear to be over unless there's that appeal.

Even if the government does appeal and there's not a stay, a delay on the ruling, AT&T will still take over Time Warner next week. That means, CNN, this channel, and other channels will be owned by AT&T next week. In the short term, not a lot of changes for consumers. In the long term, maybe some improvement to service and products.

BOLDUAN: Does this open the door for many more mergers like this?

STELTER: It definitely does. And it's like a domino effect. This was the first domino. But lots of other companies were waiting to see what the judge would do and what the judge would decide before going with their own deals. As early as today, Comcast could make a bid for Rupert Murdoch's FOX assets. Murdoch has been trying to sell the movie studio and the entertainment channel, not FOX News, but most of the rest of it. Right now, Disney is trying to buy those assets. Comcast will come in and make its own offer. And that's just one of many deals expected as a result of this.

BOLDUAN: Brian, great to see you. Thank you very much. STELTER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: We'll follow that.

And this. President Trump is back from the summit from Singapore, back from his historic moment with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, and back from his Twitter feed, saying, "Everyone can sleep well at night now," declaring that North Korea is "no longer a nuclear threat." Is that so?

Joining me now, Republican Senator Rob Portman, of Ohio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for coming in.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN, (R), OHIO: Hey, Kate. You bet. Nice to be on together.

BOLDUAN: You applauded the direct talks with North Korea. The president tweeting today that, "Everyone can now feel safer. There's no longer a nuclear threat for North Korea."

Do you believe that?

PORTMAN: Well, it's a step in the right direction. And I have been promoting direct discussions with North Korea, in part, because of my experience in trying to get Otto Warmbier, the young man from Ohio who finally came back but in a vegetative state, and spent 18 months working on that. It was very frustrating because we couldn't break through to the right levels to get answers even as to his condition. And I do think, with the regards to the nuclear weapons program, it's important for us to have the direct and very candid and tough negotiations.

What will happen, we'll see. We need to be sure that whatever we see in terms of their commitments are verifiable because, in the past, what North Korea has done is enter into these negotiations as a way to stall the efforts of the international community to push back on their weapons program and the means to deliver it, the missile program. Yes, I think it's trust, but verify. And I say trust, but, I mean, I'm skeptical because of the past.


PORTMAN: But it's a step in the right direction. Direct negotiations is good at this level. Of course, it's unprecedented. And the communique was positive in the sense of North Korea making certain commitments, and now we have to see if they honor those.

BOLDUAN: Can you say with confidence that there's no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea because of that communique?

[11:45:00] PORTMAN: Well, no. Of course, there's a nuclear threat from Iran, North Korea, other countries that have nuclear weapons and have shown their irresponsibility in terms of their behavior. In the case of North Korea, of course, they also have human rights violation. And I raise the issue of Otto Warmbier -- and I met with his parents at the airport in Cincinnati a year ago today when he came home in this horrible condition. You need to be skeptical, Kate, but it's a step in the right direction. And it's a very positive development that North Korea is saying these things. And now let's be sure that these are verifiable and that they honor the commitments they've make.

BOLDUAN: One of the concrete things that was promised was that the U.S. would halt these military exercises with South Korea. The president said yesterday and again today that one of the reasons for doing that is it will save a bunch of money, it will save a fortune, is what he said. Is that the case?

PORTMAN: Relative to not doing it, I suppose so. There needs to be training so the training exercises would continue in some way. It wouldn't be war games with South Korea, it sounds like, at least, in the short term. One thing that is interesting, at least what I've been told, in terms of the commitment from the U.S. area, is it's a freeze, it's not a delay permanently. In other words, it's still on the sidelines. And if the commitments that North Korea has made are not kept, and they need to be verifiable, then those war games would continue. So in a sense, it's the maximum pressure campaign, that part of it put on hold while we see whether they're serious. That's the right way to approach it. I'll be with Admiral Harris this afternoon, who is the former commander for that region, the Pacific region, and is now up for nomination as the ambassador to Korea, and I'll be talking to him about that because I think he has a very good perspective on this. And I'm, frankly, very pleased that he's being nominated for this job.

BOLDUAN: We'd be glad to hear that perspective so please share when you do speak with him.

I want to ask you about tariffs. You're concerned about the escalating trade tensions with Canada and other allies. Senator Bob Corker, fellow Republican, of course, he wants to do something about it. He's trying to limit the president's ability to use this national security rationale to impose tariffs and go around Congress. He's not getting a vote on it, and he's not happy about it. Listen to this.


SEN. BOB CORKER, (R), TENNESSEE: We might poke the bear! The president might get upset with us, as United States Senators, if we vote on the Corker Amendment. Well, we'll do what we can do. But, my gosh, if the president gets upset with us, then we might not be in the majority!


BOLDUAN: The point he's making is that you all are too scared to do what's right. Is that what's happening here, Senator?

PORTMAN: Well, it's very complicated with trade, as you know, Kate. I'm a former U.S. trade representative, and so I've been involved in some of these issues. In this particular case, we have situation where it's the national security bill, called the National Defense Authorization Bill, and this is a revenue measure so he got put on there, the House would have the ability to send the bill back us to, and we have to start over. Because revenue measures have to begin in the House. It's a process issue.

But Bob Corker raises a good point with regard to the fact that the tariffs being imposed because of the use of the 232, which is for national security, aren't necessarily being used properly. In other words, I do think there's a national security issue with regard to our steel and aluminum industry. No question about it. I think China, in fact, is the problem. They have 15 percent of oil production in 15 years and now they have 50 percent. They don't need it. They're trying to dominate it. I'm convinced of that. And they do sell their product under cost and subsidized. And we don't want to drive out the steel jobs. That's less 1500 jobs in my state of Ohio in the last few years alone.

But having said that, you need to use the national security part of this in a selective way where there's a security risk. In some areas with steel, like electrical steel, we have a real problem. We have one manufacturer left. They said they're going out of business. We need it. We have had a 100 percent increase in imports. That's the way you use it. But to use it in a broad-based way, as we have, for instance, with regard to Canada and Mexico and the E.U., is a mistake. And I think it actually risks the World Trade Organization finally ruling on this issue in a way that would take away that authority. There's a good point to be raised here subsequently on trade. It's complicated. But the reality is that this is a very specialized tool that ought to be used in a very targeted way.

BOLDUAN: Where there's a will, there's a way, Senator. At least I used to think that. Maybe not.


BOLDUAN: I want to talk to you about elections, but we've run out of time. I have breaking news to get to.

Thank you, Senator.

PORTMAN: Yes. Thanks for having me on.

BOLDUAN: I appreciate it. Thank you.

PORTMAN: Take care.

BOLDUAN: We have breaking news coming in now. President Trump's former attorney, former personal attorney, his so-called fixer, Michael Cohen. We know his name very well now. His home, his office, his hotel room all raided by the FBI in April. He just split from his legal team.

CNN's chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, has all the details for us.

Gloria, what does this mean? [11:50:01] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: We're not sure what it means. We do know that he's split with his legal team that's been representing him through this criminal investigation. And we know that this could signal a change in strategy, although, we are told that he -- that Michael Cohen has not met with prosecutors, and we are not sure whether he will or whether the prosecutors want to meet with him to cut any kind of a deal.

ABC News was the first to report this shift in a legal team. But at this point, we're just not sure what Cohen is going to do. I've been told by one source that what he really wanted was a New York lawyer, somebody with experience in the southern district of New York, where he is likely to face criminal charges. But we're not sure at this point whether this means that the strategy shift could become Michael Cohen meeting with prosecutors to cut some sort of a deal. It's too early to say.

BOLDUAN: But an important development when this man is in the fight of his life in the midst of all this.

BORGER: Yes. Well, he is.


BORGER: He is. It's clearly affecting him. He's clearly been unhappy. As we all know, his home and his office were raided, and it is something that has upset the president very much. And that perhaps Michael Cohen has decided to shift his strategy in this. We're just going to have to wait and see. We have not gotten a comment from his previous attorneys. And we are not yet sure exactly the name of his new attorney. I'm told the deal has not been finalized.

BOLDUAN: Gloria, stick with me.

Let me bring in also CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan.

Paul, what is your reaction to this? In the middle of the fight of his life, he's splitting from his attorney. What is your take?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I agree with Gloria, we don't have enough information to reach a firm conclusion. But my own sources in New York indicate that Cohen has been considering a change of attorney for a while. He used Steve Ryan, his current attorney, who is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, and very, very highly regarded, because he wanted a big firm, the McDermott, Will & Emery firm, in for this five-million-document review.

It's not unusual to use one firm for one task and a different attorney for a different task. The next task that Cohen faces, if he's indicted, he's going to be indicted in New York in the southern district. So he'll want a trial attorney who is wired into the southern district, who is familiar with trying cases in the southern district. Steve Ryan is known more as a Washington lawyer. Now, in fairness to Steve Ryan, he's very well regarded, and he's tried criminal cases, as well. But this doesn't mean that Cohen is cooperating. It could mean a lot of other things. BOLDUAN: Does it matter, Paul, who dropped who?

CALLAN: No, because it could -- you don't know what the back story is between the attorneys and Cohen. If they got wind of the fact that Cohen was looking for a change, that angers them, and they're probably happy to get out of the case. They may have come in only for the purpose of handling the document review. We don't know at this point.

BORGER: And, Kate, Steve Ryan was originally hired, don't forget, to shepherd Michael Cohen through his congressional testimony. That is -- that is his area of expertise. And Cohen, I know, really wanted a Washington attorney to help him, you know, navigate that morass before Congress, which he did. And suddenly, this turned into a very different kind of a case. And I'm told that Cohen decided that he now needs a different kind of lawyer with more experience in New York.

BOLDUAN: What does this mean -- look, the president -- the president has weighed in on this case early, right, the fact that there's no longer attorney-client privilege, Gloria, and calling it a break-in at every turn. I wonder if this becomes a new chapter -- if this means anything different for President Trump in terms of exposure now.

BORGER: Well, I can't answer that.


BORGER: But we do know -- but we do know that the president was very upset about -- about the raid of Michael Cohen's office and his home. He publicly called it a disgrace. Privately, my sources are telling me that it was a game changer for the president, because he -- he found it so appalling that his personal attorney's office was raided and it has affected even the president's lawyer's attitudes toward the special counsel and his team. I think they're trying to navigate through that now, as they talk about potential presidential testimony. But it is something that affected the president deeply and personally, and he was very upset about it.

[11:55:15] BOLDUAN: And, Paul, the fact that a source tells Gloria that Michael Cohen has not yet met with prosecutors to speak about a potential deal, and unclear if one side is seeking it at all, does that tell you kind of everything you need to know about where the state of play is right now?

CALLAN: If that's true, customarily, prosecutors will sit down and have a session with a witness who is turning to vet the information. If they're going to offer you a deal, they want to be sure they're not being sold phony information. And it's called a "queen for a day" session actually, the prosecutors call it. And if there's been "no queen for a day" session with prosecutors, that means we're not at a point where something serious is being negotiated yet.

BOLDUAN: More information needed. But Michael Cohen, according to sources, telling Gloria Borger he's splitting with his legal team. What this means for Michael Cohen and the case that is being built against him, we'll all likely find out.

Paul, thanks so much.

Gloria, thanks so much.

We'll have much more on this breaking news after a quick break.