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Trump Distancing Himself from Cohen, Signaling a Possible Pardon for Manafort, Attacking A.G. Sessions; Political Repercussions for Pardoning Manafort; Pompeo to Return to North Korea Next Week. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] LINDSAY CZARNIAK, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: That's a great question. I don't think so.


CZARNIAK: I would watch out --


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: No trash talking.

CZARNIAK: Thank you.

I appreciate it.

Thank you for being with me today. I'll see you tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow, in New York.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Erica Hill, in for Kate Bolduan.

Friends, felons and the fallout. President Trump sits down with FOX News and unleashes an avalanche of jaw-dropping remarks on threats to his administration, both real and imagined. First off, distancing himself from Michael Cohen, the former fixer, his one-time attorney. The man who joined the Trump Organization in 2006 and the same man who now says the president violated campaign finance laws.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He has been a lawyer for me. Did small deals. Not somebody that was with me that much. They make it sound like I didn't live without him.


HILL: What about Paul Manafort? Will the president pardon his former campaign chair?


TRUMP: I have great respect for what he has done in terms of what he has gone through. You know, he worked for Ronald Reagan for years. He worked for Bob Dole.


HILL: The president also launching new attacks on his embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


TRUMP: He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this?


HILL: As you saw, we have a lot to sort through.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is at the White House.

Jeremy, the president has always said how important loyalty is to him. Perhaps in some ways not all that surprising that he is voicing his displeasure with Michael Cohen and his decision to take the plea deal.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It's remarkable, Erica, to watch how different the president's comments are about Michael Cohen, who took a plea deal, who implicated him in a felony, and Paul Manafort, who was found guilty by a jury of his peers of eight federal charges. We see the president now lashing out against this notion of flipping, even saying it should be outlawed.


TRUMP: People make up stories. This whole thing about flipping they call it. I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I've been watching flippers. Everything is wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair.


DIAMOND: Erica, we have seen this use of cooperating witnesses. It's something prosecutors have been using for a long time, as long as the justice system has been around, frankly. It's a key tool to taking down criminal enterprises, using one criminal to obtain information that corroborates additional evidence. It's rarely the case that it's just that witness's testimony that takes somebody down. Again, those witnesses key, often times, to taking down criminal enterprises to corroborate other evidence that exists.

HILL: Jeremy, there was this moment where President Trump falsely claimed he didn't know about the hush money payments until, in his words, later on. Yet, his own words contradict him.

DIAMOND: That's right. The president making those comments in that same interview saying that he only learned about those comments later on. Let's listen to the audio and see why it's a big contradiction.


TRUMP: Later on I knew. Later on. But they didn't come out of campaign. My first question when I heard about it was, did they come out of the campaign, because that could be a little dicey. They didn't come out of the campaign. That's big. But they weren't -- that's not -- it's not even a campaign violation.


DIAMOND: Let's leave out the fact, first of all, that the money did not come from campaign coffers makes it not a campaign finance violation. That's not true. What's also not true is the president saying that he didn't know about the payments at the time. We do have audio that Michael Cohen released from a conversation he had with then-Candidate Donald Trump discussing those payments before they were made. So it's difficult for the president to now claim that he didn't know about those payments. You see the time line here. The president on that audiotape clearly knowing about those payments. On April 5, the president making comments aboard Air Force One denying knowledge of those payments. Now he is saying he learned about those payments later on.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, was pressed about these inconsistencies yesterday. She would not directly address the question, simply saying, as she did many times during the briefing, that the president did nothing wrong. Again, all of the versions of this event are contradictory. And they can't all be true. After all, Erica, the truth is still the truth.

Back to you.

HILL: Indeed. I appreciate you pointing that out.

Jeremy Diamond for us.

Joining me now, CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston, Seth Waxman, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, and Molly Ball, CNN political analyst and national political correspondent for "Time" magazine.

Good to have all of you with us.

Mark, as we look at this, let's start off here first with the relationship between the president and Michael Cohen. The president trying to downplay this relationship. It sounds like he is going for a George Papadopoulos coffee-boy sort of relationship which we know if not the case when it comes to Michael Cohen.

[11:05:20] MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's absurd. It's absurd we're having to have this discussion. What we have seen from President Trump is that he is very effective, as is his allies, in trying to divert attention, create chaos, create doubt about everything. He could be holding up a piece of paper and say it's black and it's white, and you'll have people who support President Trump who will believe him. The questions is, as a society, when are we going to say, you know what, what he is saying is absurd. It's unrealistic. He has to come to some realization that he has to tell the truth. We have to know the truth in order for us to move forward. Right now, we are very much stalled.

HILL: In terms of comments that are getting a lot of attention, we can't ignore the president said flipping should, in his words, "be almost illegal." Seth, put this into perspective. This made a lot of people stop in their tracks as they heard those words. Why?

SETH WAXMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY & FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It's really shocking. I can tell you when I was a federal prosecutor, I used to sit on wiretaps for days and weeks. These are conversations we would heard among hardened criminals. They talk about who is flipping and who needs to be silenced and who should get benefits. To hear the president of the United States make those comments is shocking. He sounds like he is talking like a person who is a target or defendant in a criminal case, not the president of the United States.

HILL: Molly, to Mark's point, too, about the varying narratives, versions of events that have happened, there are also these other moments that we are hearing from the president. He runs as a candidate as the law-and-order candidate as we know. Then once he becomes president, he is now talking about how he has to put the word "justice" in quotes when he talks about his own Justice Department. He talks about how the laws are terrible in this country. Obviously, Molly, you can't have it both ways.

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think one of the things that's so significant about this episode is that Trump has almost dropped any pretense that his principle motivation is the good of the United States of America. Everything is about him. Whether the law is good is about whether it's good to him. Whether the Justice Department is doing its job depends how it is treating him. Whether somebody gets a security clearance is not about whether they can provide helpful -- help to America's national security, it's about whether they have insulted him. So this is just a continuation of the Trump we have always seen. I think the problem for him is he can say whatever he wants about Michael Cohen, but what we saw and why it was a turning point in Michael Cohen's plea was there's so much evidence in there that doesn't rely on just the word of Michael Cohen. There's internal information from the Trump Organization. There's tapes like the one we have heard. That is going to be harder to get away from than just insulting the character of someone who used to work with him.

HILL: The president, too, in talking about the payments, he said, as we heard in that clip, the payments didn't come through campaign funds, it's not a crime. Nothing to see here on that point. Then also going on to say that Cohen couldn't plead guilty to it because it's not a crime. Which we know, Seth, just be my legal voice of reason here, you can't plead guilty to something if it's not an actual crime. The judge is never going to accept a plea unless there's a crime attached.

WAXMAN: Right. We just had a federal -- Article III federal judge accept a plea under oath with federal prosecutors in the room. That happens every day across this country. Mr. Trump is not a lawyer. He is way, way off on this one. It's a crime. Mr. Cohen pled guilty to it. He has implicated the president of the United States in the crime.

HILL: Mark, you made the point, and we talked about it, there are certain things that are going to play well with the president's base no matter what. One of them is the president pointing out here, listen, everything that we are seeing, everybody, that has to do with Paul Manafort and his conviction this week, that has to do with the plea deal with Michael Cohen, Russia is not involved here.


HILL: But how does that actually -- is that working for him beyond his base to continue with that narrative at this point?

PRESTON: You know what's working for him is when he goes out and says Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan. That's a dog whistle. That's a really loud dog whistle to all the Republicans out there to say, he is one of us, he's one of our guys. Meaning, we should have sympathy for him. By the way, if I do pardon him, you should support me because he was a rock-solid Republican. This is the same president that talked about draining the swamp. But yet, going out and saying all these laudatory things about somebody who really has become a caricature of the swamp and why Americans hate Washington, D.C., rightfully so It's about how special interests have so much control over this.

Look, the thing about Donald Trump which is so frustrating for me, maybe for everybody else, is that he is so transparent in what he is doing. Molly is absolutely right, it's all about him, it's not about the country. I don't understand how people don't understand that.

[11:10:17] HILL: There's also a lot of reporting out this morning in terms of the mindset of Donald Trump and how it's affecting the White House. They talk about how dark, how grim it is in the White House.

Molly, a new cover of "Time," we will put it up, the third in a series, says, "In Deep," there. Is this -- is your sense though that it's actually any different today for the folks in the White House that Donald Trump is in a different mood this time around?

BALL: Well, yes and no. I mean, we all know the president's moods are quite variable and quite capricious, and how he feels about something is not necessarily a reflection of how dire his situation actually is. At this point, there have about so many departures from the White House that in a lot of ways it feels empty in there. A lot of people who are still there are so numb to these constant news cycles of outrage and controversy that they aren't capable of feeling panic at this point, no matter how dire things appear to get. That's why I think that -- thank you for showing our wonderful cover from our brilliant art department. That's why I think they're so evocative. It's more a sense of gradually rising waters than it is a single turning point that makes everything different. I think the Cohen plea is a major milestone in the saga of this administration. But it is also the case that there's been a constant drip of people coming forward, information coming out and new implications that get closer and closer to the president. He is increasingly painted into a corner.

HILL: Be interesting to see, based on this reporting of the "Wall Street Journal" this morning, whether the next drip, drip could come from David Pecker at American Media. We will watch for that.

Mark Preston, Seth Waxman, Molly Ball, appreciate it. Thanks to all of you.

Coming up, the president defends Paul Manafort again. Could he be getting ready to pardon the convicted felon? Rudy Giuliani reportedly discussing the potential fallout of that move with President Trump. Details ahead.

Plus, the president slamming his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, even questioning his manhood. Could this impact the Russia probe?

Stay with us.


[11:16:50] HILL: To pardon or not to pardon, that could be the question the president is facing about his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who could spend the rest of his life in prison after his fraud convictions that came down Tuesday. Mr. Trump has praised and defended him since the verdict, calling him brave, saying he didn't break like Michael Cohen.

The president was asked about a potential pardon for Manafort on FOX News. That aired this morning. Here is his response.


UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: Are you considering pardoning Paul Manafort?

TRUMP: I have great respect for what he has done in terms of what he has gone through. You know, he worked for Ronald Reagan for years. He worked for Bob Dole. He worked -- I guess his firm worked for McCain. He worked for many, many people, many, many years. I would say what he did, some of the charges they threw against him, every consultant, every lobbyist in Washington probably does.


HILL: No real answer there.

Rudy Giuliani did tell the "New York Times" he has spoken with the president about the political repercussions of a pardon.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN political analyst and senior political correspondent for the "Washington Examiner, David Drucker, and white- collar criminal defense attorney, Caroline Polisi.

Good to have both of you with us. David, we heard from Rudy Giuliani saying he spoke with the president about the political ramifications. We haven't heard a lot from lawmakers. But we just heard from Senator Lindsey Graham. Take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: All I can say is that pardons are normally given for somebody who has reformed themselves. Mr. Manafort hasn't even been sentenced yet. So a pardon in his case would, I thin, be viewed by a lot of people as self-serving to the president. I would advise against it.


HILL: Is that the main issue for the president, politically, that this would be seen as self-serving, David?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that the issue for the president is that he has pardoned others that are friends of his or allies of his. You can look at the Joe Arpaio pardon from last summer. I think the Manafort pardon would be part and parcel of that. It would open him up in a 2020 re-election campaign to charges of political corruption. In other words, it's not corrupt in that he can use the power of his office to pardon whomever he wants. If the perception is he looks out for his friends and doesn't do enough to treat this power fairly and circumspect, then it creates a problem for him.

Now I don't think it necessarily creates a problem for Republicans who run for Senate in a midterm election scenario. It doesn't create a problem for House Republicans, because they are running in battleground districts that don't necessarily like the president, even though they usually vote Republican in midterm elections. So we have to look at this politically in many different ways.

I think the president would be best served to let this entire process play out. If he really gets to the end of the road here with the Mueller investigation and it plays well for him, I think he is in a better position to look at a pardon at that point. If he does it in the middle of the game, it starts to look like he is trying to manipulate the game. Then he has to answer more questions that are necessary and that are healthy.

HILL: In terms of answering questions, correct me if I'm wrong here, if a pardon were granted, then this would mean that Paul Manafort is waiving his Fifth Amendment right. So, is that, hello, Robert Mueller?

[11:20:15] CAROLINE POLISI, WHITE COLLAR CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes. Rather, he would not be able to invoke it his Fifth Amendment right


POLISI: So the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination only applies if you have the looming threat of a criminal prosecution. It's your right not to incriminate yourself. Timing is key here. If President Trump were to pardon right now both retrospectively and prospectively, for the upcoming trial of Paul Manafort in D.C., you're right, he would have to testify against the president potentially.

What's interesting, Erica, is if you look at the groundwork that the president has laid -- you mentioned Joe Arpaio, look at the D'Souza pardon. D'Souza didn't argue that he didn't commit the crime for which he was convicted of campaign finance law violations. He argued he was selectively prosecuted, vindictively prosecuted by the government because there was a bunch of Democrats who didn't like his political views. That sounds like what President Trump is talking about Paul Manafort. He is saying, these crimes are crimes for sure, but they're not worse than the crimes that anyone in the Clinton administration committed.

HILL: We also heard from a juror, who was on the jury for Paul Manafort, who told FOX News they were one juror away from guilty convictions on all 18 counts, not just eight. As much as she didn't want Paul Manafort to be guilty, she couldn't deny the overwhelming, in her words, evidence. What it does that say about not only the Mueller case here but what we could be looking at next month?

POLISI: Just to remind everybody, the jury pool in D.C. is much less sympathetic, going to be much less sympathetic to conservative values as they were in the eastern district of Virginia. This was about as good of a jury pool as there could have been. I think it's a warning sign to the government. I don't think they're going to retry the 10 counts they were hung on. I think this was a victory in all sense of the word. It just goes to show you, you roll the dice. When you go to trial, you never know what kind of jury you are going to get. This is a perfect example. It only takes one, just one holdout to get a hung jury.

HILL: It's fascinating, as we watch this play out. David, there's all this reporting this morning about the president feeling increasingly cornered. Maggie Haberman in the "New York Times" talking about how when he president feels cornered, he lashes out. Exhibit A, bringing Bill Clinton's accusers to the debate just after the "Access Hollywood" tape. Is there a concern that lashing out in this case could mean a pardon which could come back to bite the president?

DRUCKER: I think with the president, he is always walking on a knife's edge. He is always right on the edge of doing something crooked or not or appearing to do something crooked or not. Then when he gets nailed for it or when he gets attacked for it, he fights back. He finds himself in a controversy. Even the president -- he kind of admitted this in the interview, he talked about this, that his life has been surrounded by controversy. It's where he has always found himself. I think it's where he is most comfortable.

Erica, what I like to caution against, after 18 months or so of the Trump presidency, is that every couple of weeks or every month and a half or so, there's some new controversy or there's some new situation the president creates or finds himself in that leaves us all wondering if he is finally gone too far, if he is finally in a corner -- I think Maggie's description is apt -- to the point where he will do something he will regret that will damage his presidency. We haven't ever reached that point. I fully expect that in another three weeks from now, six weeks from now, especially in the heat of a midterm election, there's going to be more the president is dealing with, more that Republicans are dealing with. The president always seems to climb out of this and find a way out. We saw that during his campaign. We have seen it during his presidency. People close to him are not so lucky. Republicans running in the midterm elections, they're not going to be so lucky. The president so far has managed to roll. So I am always cautious about deciding, well, this is the time when it's finally over, he has finally gone too far.

HILL: We have all learned in the last year and a half-plus that predictions can be a very dicey road.

David Caroline, appreciate it. Thank you both.

We want to get to breaking news "AT THIS HOUR." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he will be making another trip to North Korea. That will happen next week.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is at the State Department for us.

Michelle, what else do we know about this trip?

[11:24:45] MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: He just announced this. He would not take any questions from reporters who were assembled there for this announcement. That's pretty typical. But this will be his fourth trip to North Korea. The last one was just early last month. Did not go well. We know from our sources that the U.S. has presented North Korea with specific proposals for starting the process towards real denuclearization. But all of them thus far have been rejected by Kim Jong-Un, who believes the U.S. stance has been, quote, "gangster like," according to our sources. The fact that he now has not only a trip scheduled for next week -- we don't know the exact timing -- he has just appointed a new special representative to North Korea. The last one resigned in February because there were differences of opinion in the approach. Now they have a new person who will be devoted to this issue. They're going together. That's a good sign. It means talks will continue. A lot of big questions still remain, will Kim Jong-Un be meeting again with Mike Pompeo after the last trip did not go well? Does this mean that there's real progress behind the scenes? All of that, we will have to wait and see.

HILL: We will be watching for those details.

Michelle, appreciate it. Thank you.

Coming up, the president questions the manhood of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a new attack on his recusal from the Russia probe. Why not just fire him? That's next.