Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Expresses Sympathy for Paul Manafort; President Trump Responds to Michael Cohen Plea Deal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 22, 2018 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Is impeachment now on the midterm ballot?

THE LEAD starts right now.

A presidency in crisis and a president seemingly in denial, as Mr. Trump is implicated by one of his most trusted associates in directing him to commit federal crimes.


Add another to the list of all the president's alleged crooks. One of the charter members of his fan club in Congress accused of basically bathing in campaign cash, spending on himself, on his wife, and on his pet bunny?

Plus, the search for a 20-year-old college student comes to a painful end. An undocumented immigrant in court today on a murder charge, as President Trump sites the case to highlight why the nation's laws against illegal immigration in his view needs to be stronger.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead.

President Trump's today taking cover after he was implicated in federal crimes and trying to spin a narrative completely at odds with what we're hearing from the United States Justice Department.

This comes after two men who were once part of the president's inner circle are now convicted felons.

In the case of the United States of America vs. Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair was found guilty on eight felony counts. President Trump today tweeted that he feels -- quote -- "such respect" for Manafort.

He suggested the convictions did not constitute justice. He thanked Manafort for not flipping on him. And the president falsely said the charges were merely a 12-year-old tax case, when, in fact, Manafort was found guilty of two bank fraud charges that took place either on or around March 2016, when Manafort joined the Trump campaign.

In the case of the United States of America vs. Michael Cohen, the president's former fixer and attorney pleaded guilty on eight counts and implicated President Trump, saying that he, Cohen, violated campaign finance laws -- quote -- "in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office," i.e., President Trump, for the principal purpose of influencing the election.

President Trump's today is claiming that goes campaign finance violations are -- quote -- "not a crime." That's not what the Justice Department said. The same president, of course, is named as individual one in the plea deal.

Now, you can believe individual one, who is implicated in the crimes. The president does have a long and storied history of saying things that aren't true. Or you can believe career prosecutors at the Justice Department, two federal judges and a jury of Paul Manafort's peers.

But you do have to pick between one or the other.

This afternoon, another demonstrable falsehood from the president, telling his favorite channel that he did not learn of the hush money payments until after they had been made, despite the fact, of course, that Michael Cohen recently released an audio recording from September 2016 in which Donald Trump can be clearly heard discussing a potential payment to playboy model Karen McDougal.

And you will recall that President Trump himself verified that tape, tweeting at the time: "What kind of a lawyer would take a client?"

It's a decent question, after all.

Let's get right to CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House for us.

Abby, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders this afternoon, she insisted over and over two points. One, President Trump did nothing wrong. Two, he's not been charged with a crime. And she also refused to square the president's claim that he did not know about the payments when they happened with that audiotape.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's exactly right, Jake.

A day after two bombshell news announcements yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders came to the podium, but offered very little in the way of new information. She refused to answer how President Trump in an interview today could imply that he didn't know about those payments made to women by his attorney before they happened, but he's on tape discussing them with Michael Cohen.

Sarah Sanders remaining mum about that, repeating talking points, and also not talking very much about whether President Trump might pardon Paul Manafort.


PHILLIP (voice-over): The White House in all-out damage control mode after two of President Trump's former aides become felons.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders repeating the same message. SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As the president said, we have stated many times, he did nothing wrong, he did nothing wrong. The president in this matter has nothing wrong.

PHILLIP: Yet Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, pled guilty to campaign finance violations and tax fraud charges, adding he broke the law in coordination with and at the direction of Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They didn't come out of the campaign. And that's big. But they weren't. That's not a -- it's not even a campaign violation.

PHILLIP: The president rushing to defend his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was found guilty of eight counts of financial crimes, tweeting: "I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family."

Trump praising Manafort for refusing to break, prompting speculation he might consider a pardon, a possibility Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani addressed last month.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If in fact the president and his advisers -- not me -- come to the conclusion that he had been treated unfairly. These pardons happen in these political investigations.

PHILLIP: The president also claiming today that Cohen's campaign finance violations are -- quote -- "not a crime" and falsely claiming that President Obama's campaign had similar issues.


TRUMP: If you look at President Obama, he had a massive campaign violation, but he had a different attorney general, and they viewed it a lot different.

PHILLIP: Obama's campaign paid a $375,000 fine from the Federal Election Commission for reporting errors, but never faced accusations that aides intentionally sought to conceal campaign contributions that violated the law.

Cohen reaching a deal with prosecutors on charges related to his hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: And that's what Donald Trump is. He's an unindicted co-conspirator. Make no mistake about it, based on this plea agreement.

PHILLIP: The court documents' explicit references to Trump blindsided the president, White House sources told CNN. As Trump's legal risk magnifies, the president plans to aggressively try to discredit his former age as a liar who should not be believed as a witness, according to sources.

Republicans on Capitol Hill also ducking the issue with just two months until the midterm elections.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: All we know about it is that he's pled guilty, and everything else that you're asked me is speculation.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I don't think we know all the facts.

QUESTION: So, you are not concerned?

CORNYN: No, that's not what I said. That's what you say.


PHILLIP: So, even though President Trump has spent most of the day defending Paul Manafort, raising concerns that he's being treated unfairly, Sarah Sanders would only tell reporters that there's no discussion right now of a pardon.

But in an indication of how problematic the Michael Cohen case remains for President Trump, the New York State Department of Taxation has now subpoenaed Cohen in a case involving the Trump Foundation.

So it's clear, Jake, that there are plenty more ways that Michael Cohen could become a problem for President Trump.

TAPPER: All right, Abby Phillip, thank you so much.

Let's talk about it with the experts.

I do want to dive into this thing.

And let me start with you, Mona.

In a new interview clip released by FOX, the president was asked about the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Take a listen.


QUESTION: Did you know about the payments?

TRUMP: Later on, I knew, later on.


TAPPER: But that contradicts what Trump said on that September 2016 tape that Cohen recently released. We're going to play a little bit of it and you can -- you will be able to hear Trump saying, so what do we got to pay for this, 150, meaning $150,000. Take a listen.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: And, I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty? COHEN: ... funding. Yes. And it's all the stuff.


TAPPER: It still feels like we're not getting the whole truth here out of the present.

MONA CHAREN, ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: The normal amount of staggering lying going on.

I mean, the initial story was they knew nothing about it, there was no affair, there was no hush money. Then later Giuliani contradicted that. Well, yes, was hush money, but it had nothing to do with Trump. Trump didn't know about it. Now it's we know because of these tapes. Yes, he didn't know about it. And now he said I didn't know about it until later. Whatever that means. Later than what?

So they have zero credibility on this story, as on so many.

TAPPER: Does it matter?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, in the grand scheme of things. But will it matter to Trump supporters? No, it won't.

It just -- it doesn't, because they're looking at the -- they think he's been under siege this entire time and they believe him first and foremost.

Now, we will see if it matters in the midterms. For those who voted for Trump because they're Republicans, not because they are part of the Trump train, that remains to be seen. But in terms of whether the president's lying about this, I think at this point it's kind of baked in.

TAPPER: Kaitlan Collins, our able White House correspondent, tried to push Sarah Sanders on this issue. Take a listen.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: In his interview today, the president said he found out about those payments that Michael Cohen made later on.

But he's on tape discussing how to make one of the payments with Michael Cohen, so before the payment was made. So how do you explain that?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Once again, I have commented on this pretty extensively. What I can tell you about this that the president did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. There is no collusion. For anything beyond that, I would refer you to the president's outside counsel.


TAPPER: Senator Santorum? RICK SANTORUM, CNN COMMENTATOR: yes. I mean, the White House's answer is, this has nothing to do with Russia. This has nothing to do with collusion. This is an extraneous matter. There's a real legal question here, whether a president using his own personal money to pay someone hush money, if you will, whether that's a campaign finance violation, because clearly there were other motives possible for him to pay that money, like not wanting his wife and children to know about this.

So there's there's a lot of legitimacy to what they're saying. I'm not saying that's necessarily a good riff on their part, but what they are saying has some legitimacy to it.

TAPPER: I have actually heard this as something of a defense. I will come back to you in a second, Mona, but just want to let Jen weigh in.

Which is, President Trump has been paying off people, women included, for years to keep their mouth shut. I mean, it might not be the most happy explanation, especially for religious people or moral people or people who believe in the sanctity of marriage, et cetera.


But it does make the case that maybe this wasn't expressly related to the election.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Thank you, America, for bringing us Donald Trump.

Look, I think that may be a point they make. It's a little bizarre that would be one of their talking points. What you saw Michael Cohen say in that courtroom yesterday was that this was -- he knowingly did it, that this was related to the election. He was convicted of a federal crime. He is now the sitting president of the United States and he was just implicated in a federal crime.

I do think there is a difference between being a sitting president and what he did, as scandalous as it may have been, as a businessman.

CHAREN: It's a little bit dicey to suggest that this has nothing to do with the election, when the payments were made so close to the election. I mean, if this has been about his family and wanting to avoid embarrassment, and the events took place in 2006, well, you might think that the payoff...


SANTORUM: She threatened to go public right before the -- I mean, you don't make a payment unless there's a threat of some sort of...


CHAREN: But there are also problems with the reporting requirements.

I mean, the president can give as much of his own personal money to his own campaign as he wants to, but he has to report it as a campaign contribution.


CHAREN: There would have been no reporting requirement necessary before the election.


PSAKI: Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with Whitewater, I'm pretty sure. I'm going to guess you weren't cool with Monica Lewinsky.


SANTORUM: I was in the United States Senate. I voted for impeachment.

No, look, I'm not telling you I'm not necessarily pleased with the way the White House is approaching this, but they are approaching it on a very factual basis, saying that this investigation is just about -- just about -- should be just about collusion. And this doesn't prove collusion and all this other stuff is extraneous.

TAPPER: You said on a factual basis, but the president obviously said something today that wasn't true, that he didn't know about it until after the fact, when he's on tape.

SANTORUM: I'm talking about how the White House responded.


TAPPER: You mean Sarah Sanders, Sarah Sanders, not the president. The president is part of the White House too.


SANTORUM: Michael Cohen and Donald Trump have lied about this incident.

Michael Cohen said, he did this on his own, the president didn't know anything about it. All of a sudden now, hey, the president directed me to do it. So it's not just the president who's told different stories on this. It's also Michael Cohen.

And again when you have a credible claim, which I think you have laid out, that there are multiple other reasons why someone would pay this money, this is a very, very hard case to prove that he's broken campaign violations.

TAPPER: Do you think this makes a difference? Do you think this makes a difference in the midterm elections? Do you think this makes a difference in the Trump presidency?

Or is everybody just in their corners and it's going to remain as it has been?

PSAKI: I think those are two different things. And the midterm elections, you saw how Democrats came out today and they really didn't want to talk about impeachment or kind of ruffling feathers before the midterm elections, because they don't want to energize Trump's voters. And Republicans are certainly not going to move toward impeachment at a stage where they also want Trump voters to be supporting them, and they don't need to at this point.

So in the midterms, no. But yesterday should be and I think could be a turning point, as we look back six months from now, as to when Democrats may want to lay the case, when they're -- after the outcome of the Mueller investigation. It is true that this isn't linked to Russia currently.

But there are a lot of links that Michael Cohen and that all of these players, Paul Manafort, have to Russia, a lot more about that, that we will still learn.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about, including Lanny Davis saying that there are potential things and links that he -- Michael Cohen wants to talk about.

Michael Cohen's lawyer implying the president's former fixer knows something that Mueller will want to hear. Should the president be worried about that?

Then thousands of dollars on a flight for a pet rabbit, 30 tequila shots, Punky Brewster paraphernalia, Hawaiian shorts, and hotel rooms, wonder which member of Congress is accused of spending this kind of money?

Stick with us.


[16:18:10] TAPPER: The Justice Department has made it clear time after time that a sitting president cannot be indicted. So, what happens now to the man identified in the Michael Cohen court documents as individual one, also known as President Trump?

Let's bring in former assistant U.S. attorney Kim Wehle and former federal prosecutor Seth Waxman.

I want you guys to take a listen to President Trump explaining why this is not a campaign finance violation.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They didn't come out of the campaign and that's fake. But they weren't -- it's not even a campaign violation.


TAPPER: Saying that because he paid for this himself, the hush money to Stormy Daniels and American Media did the payment of sorts to Karen McDougal, that it's not campaign money, therefore, it's not a campaign violation. True?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, two things. One is we have a federal judge as well as federal prosecutors that accepted this plea. So, the notion that somehow the president can undo the -- whether this is a crime or not is sort of silly. The other point is that the issue has to do with disclosures.

So, regardless of whether it came from his company, that would be a violation. Whether it came from him through Cohen, none of it was disclosed. That itself is a problem.

The campaign and election laws care about knowing where the money is going and people know how to vote. They know who's actually paying for these campaigns. That's the problem.

And the issue with whether it was knowing, the notion that it was handed over in order to affect the outcome of the campaign, that is we don't want this information coming out because it's going to hurt the candidate, that makes it a crime. It's distinct from a civil violation.

TAPPER: So, Michael Cohen said, and pleaded to, he did this directed by President Trump, coordinated by President Trump, then candidate Trump to affect the election. But the president's defenders have argued and again this is an odd defense but this guy's been paying off women to keep their mouths shut for a long time -- not just women, other people, too.

[16:20:05] Therefore, it's not necessarily related to the presidential election.

Do they have an argument to make?

SETH WAXMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Sure, they have to come up with something. I mean, that can be an argument. John Edwards made a similar kind of argument. This had to do with my girlfriend, not the campaign. But the timing and the circumstances are so different. In the Edwards case, it was months if not years removed and it was a current girlfriend.

This was people he had affairs with allegedly, you know, ten years ago on the very doorstep of the election. So, the timing's very different. In addition, the actions Mr. Trump took to make those payments, passing it through his attorney, through a corporation, in a way that, you know, prosecutors would argue would be to disguise the nature of the transaction, all circumstantial evidence of wrongdoing or criminal intent.

TAPPER: So, Kim, Cohen said in court that Trump directed him to quiet these women who allegedly had affairs with him. But that wasn't in the court documents. Why wouldn't prosecutors have that in writing to what he pleaded to?

WEHLE: So, the statement that Cohen made during the actual --

TAPPER: Yes. WEHLE: -- you know, I'm not sure exactly why that itself wouldn't have been in the document. Perhaps Seth has a thought on that. But I think --

TAPPER: Does it even matter?

WEHLE: I mean, he said it in open court under oath and the court accepted this plea. And so, if it weren't an actual crime, if there weren't evidence supporting the allegations that he was pleading guilty to the -- the Article 3 judge wouldn't accept that.

TAPPER: So a president -- the Justice Department guidelines are a president can't be indicted. Does this just take it to the political realm of impeachment? Is that only legal ramification here potentially?

WAXMAN: Yes, that's a big ramification. I mean, I think that's right.

You know, I'm of the opinion a sitting president shouldn't be indicted. There are impeachment proceedings. The framers set a very, you know, well thought out process if in case a president goes south. To allow an individual federal prosecutor or state prosecutor to indict the president and allow 12 jurors to decide the fate of that president could run amuck.

So, there's an impeachment proceeding that can take place and I think that's where this can ultimately head up.

WEHLE: I have a different view on that.

WAXMAN: Sure. There's a debate.

WEHLE: Yes, there's a debate. We had -- you know, Ken Starr's office as well as Leon Jaworski's office both concluded that you could indict a sitting president.

TAPPER: You could?

WEHLE: You could. Yes. There are memos out there.

So, it's not clear in the Constitution. People talk about plain reading the Constitution whether to indict a sitting president is not in there. I think the structure assumes there's accountability for every member of our government and to the extent of which Congress right now is sort of out to lunch, not actually doing their oversight role here, the notion that there would be no accountability potentially if this political process fails I think is a problem.

I do think you could in theory indict a sitting president and put it under seal. The public wouldn't know. And then after he finishes office, then those cases could go forward on the theory that we would have to go to the statue of limitations.

The memos from this issue from OLC, as well as from the special prosecutors really boil down to, is it going to interfere with his ability to execute the law under Article II? If it's quiet, if the public isn't aware, I don't think that would interfere.

TAPPER: Let me ask you, a final question, both of you, which is, President Trump's defenders and President Trump himself have suggested that because Manafort was only found guilty of eight of the 18 charges, the other 10 were resulted in a hung jury or mistrial on those 10. But eight out of 18, President Trump wrote, a large number of counts, 10, could not even be decided in the Paul Manafort case. Witch hunt. I don't know what witch hunt has to do with that there.

But in any case, as a former prosecutors, eight out of 18, are you happy with that result?

WAXMAN: Well, let me put it around, as a defense lawyer, that would not be a good day for me and my client. The idea that I had a case defending an individual client and they got convicted on eight very serious counts, bank fraud, tax evasion, with sentencing guidelines that could be anywhere from 10 to 20 years.

So, Mr. Trump's statement I think is a wishful thinking. Not reality. It was a bad day for Mr. Manafort clearly and for the Trump Organization as a whole.

TAPPER: What do you think?

WEHLE: Yes. I mean, politically, too, where I think the White House now is stumbling. They're running out of ways of spinning this in a way that's not absolutely damaging and I think we're seeing the house is going to fall, the house of cards eventually.

I'm not sure how it all come down, but this is not sustainable in a popsicle stand, let alone the White House and the executive branch of government in the United States.

TAPPER: All right. Kim Wehle, Seth Waxman, thanks so much for being here. Appreciate it.

If Michael Cohen answers lawmakers' questions, again, will that spell new trouble for President Trump? The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee responds to that next.

Stay with us.


[16:29:19] TAPPER: One day after Michael Cohen implicated President Trump in court, Cohen's lawyer says he's prepared to tell the special counsel's team, quote, everything.

CNN's Brynn Gingras now explores what this might mean for President Trump.


BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Trump's once most loyal friend turning his back on him in court and now suggesting there's more to tell. Michael Cohen's attorney Lanny Davis continues to make the rounds,

saying Cohen could help special counsel Robert Mueller with the Russia investigation.

LANNY DAVIS, MICHAEL COHEN'S LAWYER: My observation is that the topics relating to hacking and the crime of hacking laid out in the indictments of the 12 Russians that there are subjects that Michael Cohen could address.

GINGRAS: Davis also offering Cohen to testify to any congressional committee regarding the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians without immunity.