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Trump Distancing Himself from Cohen, Signaling a Possible Pardon for Manafort, Attacking A.G. Sessions; Sen. Lindsey Graham Comments on Whether Trump Gets Rid of A.G. Sessions; Political Repercussions for Pardoning Manafort; Trump Legal Storm Puts Parties in Catch 22. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:12] NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN HOST: Thanks, Erica.

Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Nia Malika Henderson. John King is off.

The president clear and concise in a new interview today, Michael Cohen's only crime was flipping. And new taunts, too, for his attorney general who rewarded the president's loyalty with inaction. But he said Paul Manafort, now a convicted felon, deserves great respect for not cracking.

And the president's national security adviser confronted with an uncomfortable question abroad. Do you think your boss could be compromised?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Were there ever concerns that your own president is a security risk?

JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Of course not. That's a silly question. And I just spoke to him literally a few minutes ago. Honestly, have a little faith in the American people who elected him president.


HENDERSON: A clarifying day today. The president, who seems to prize personal loyalty above all else, now suggests it should be a crime to cross him. The president in an interview that aired this morning on "FOX & Friends" insists that the crimes that Michael Cohen admitted to in court aren't really crimes.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He pled to two counts that aren't a crime, which nobody understands. What he did -- and they weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HENDERSON: Instead, the real crime that Cohen committed is telling New York prosecutors the truth as accepted by a federal court and implicating the president.


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. Then they get 10 years and jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed.


HENDERSON: For the president, who made his bones in 1980s New York, there are few sins worse than becoming a cooperator.

Another person guilty of disloyalty in the president's view, his own attorney general.


TRUMP: He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this? And by the way, he was on the campaign. You know, the only reason I gave him the job, because I felt loyalty. He was an original supporter. He was on the campaign. He knows there was no collusion.


HENDERSON: CNN's Abby Phillip is live at the White House.

Abby, the president just had an event where he met at the White House with Republican lawmakers. Did he clarify anything today?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Nia, the president just let reporters into the room for that meeting. It was originally scheduled to have been closed, but he said nothing. He didn't respond to questions about any of these issues floating around him. He didn't expand on any of his comments or explain, you know, his view of the situation.

But what he has been doing over the last day or so, specifically in a lengthy interview with FOX News that aired last night and today, is really take the lead in the administration's response to all of these problems. There's no question the White House staffers were caught by surprise by a confluence of bad news stories, Paul Manafort's verdict and also Michael Cohen's guilty plea. But President Trump has been the one left to test out various strategies for dealing with these problems, specifically also for dealing with Michael Cohen. President has gone from talking about Michael Cohen as someone who was barely involved in his business and in the campaign to saying Michael Cohen didn't commit a crime and then saying that Michael Cohen is also not to be trusted. So there's a lot that the president is trying to test out, but it's clear not a whole lot of this is really sticking. Yesterday, White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, came to the

podium, didn't answer many questions. She repeated these talking points, saying there was no collusion, that President Trump didn't commit a crime. But clearly this is a White House struggling to settle on something that will work, that can get this off of their plate and turn them to something else, some other subject that will be a better story line for this White House and for this president -- Nia?

HENDERSON: Thanks, Abby, for that update.

Here with me to share the reporting and insights, Catherine Lucey, with the Associated Press, Michael Warren, with the "Weekly Standard, Rachael Bade with "Politico," and Perry Bacon, with FiveThirtyEight.

A lot to discuss today. Abby mentioned there basically the strategy of this White House.

Catherine, do you sense there's a strategy that they've settled on, or is it, as Abby said, they're just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks?

[12:05:03] CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: No, I think what Abby says is right. What we've been hearing from people inside and outside this White House is it's not really clear how they're trying to frame a counternarrative, a response, a way forward. Folks who go on cable news to talk about this presidency, to defend this presidency, haven't heard much in how they should be sort of explaining this, what they should be talking about. It's an issue. So right now the main person who's talking is the president. As you saw just now, he's saying a variety of different things. And it's not really clear how they're going to move this forward.

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, WEEKLY STANDARD: I think it is clear, though, that to the extent they do have a strategy, it's sort of the old playbook, right. It's deny any wrongdoing. We heard that from Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday in her briefing, saying over and over that the president did nothing wrong. And the president, of course, sort of allying himself to those who are loyal with him and disparaging those who are disloyal. That seems to be -- again, as Abby said, he seems to be taking the lead on this strategy. The same as usual. The difference here is, is this a different moment here? Are things now different that require from the White House a new strategy or different approach to dealing with this problem?

HENDERSON: And on that "FOX & Friends" interview, he went on at length about Cohen. It's this strategy that we've seen before with him, essentially distancing himself from Cohen. Here he is.


TRUMP: Well, he was a lawyer for me for -- one of many. You know, they always say the lawyer. Then they like to add the fixer. I don't know if he was a fixer. I don't know where that term came from. But he's been a lawyer for me, didn't do big deals, did small deals. Not somebody that was with me that much. You know, they make it sound like I didn't live without him. I understood Michael Cohen very well. Turned out he wasn't a very good lawyer, frankly, but he was somebody that was probably with me for about 10 years. And I would see him sometimes.


HENDERSON: I would see him sometimes. Not very often.

PERRY BACON, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: It's like I talked about Manafort. Manafort was involved in the campaign. He was the chairman who helped the president win the campaign, of course. The one strategy I do see is -- Steve Bannon brought it up, so did Trump this morning -- is this idea of the Democrats are obsessed with impeachment. I think that is one strategy you're going to see. If you listen to Nancy Pelosi, she expressly keeps saying we're not going to do impeachment. She's the Democrat. That said, you are seeing this idea in terms of rallying the base, to say the Democrats will use this against me for impeachment. I think you're going to hear that more and more and we go forward.

HENDERSON: And this idea, Rachael, that whatever Cohen did wasn't really a crime. You heard that from Donald Trump in this interview.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to try to speak to the legal analysis of that, but yes, obviously that's part of the talking point right now. I do think there are questions right now about Cohen going out there saying the president told me to do this. Well, lawyers are saying he's going to have to prove -- prosecutors are going to have to prove intent, and did the president know this was a crime. It probably won't be that hard to do that, given he used to tweet a bunch about John Edwards and his mistress situation and when he paid money to keep that quiet. Then he gets in trouble with the law. The president back then, you know, used to tweet about that. So clearly he knew that was not allowed. But, yes, of course that's going to be a way to deflect right now. I think privately, out front, they are obviously pushing back on this, calling it a witch hunt, but there was a great nugget in the post story this morning where the president apparently called in his top advisers and said, tell me honestly, how bad is this. That just shows the tweet in the middle of the night last night that he's worried. He's staying up and concerned.

HENDERSON: Yes, that tweet at 1:00 a.m., which was no collusion, rigged witch hunt, again, part of what he's been saying for many months now.

LUCEY: We've heard that he's upset about betrayal. You see that also with these questions of loyalty. Loyalty is so important to him. The idea that someone would flip, as he's putting it, and you heard his complaints about flipping this morning on FOX. This goes very deep.

HENDERSON: In this way, he very much sounds like a mob boss. This idea that snitches get stitches, a kind of petty gang member philosophy.

BACON: It's alarming to hear the president, the chief executive of the country, the way he's talking about flipping done by prosecutors everywhere. He's attacking that. He's attacking the attorney general. You also hear this language other places. Duncan Hunter, now under indictment, is saying, hey, they just make it up, the DOJ is full of liberals. This is now affecting other people, the way Trump is talking about it as if the prosecutors around the country are led by Jeff Sessions, a very conservative person, who's the head of the Justice Department.

[12:09:58] HENDERSON: Speaking of Jeff Sessions, Lindsey Graham commented about Jeff Sessions and whether or not there will be a new attorney general at some point. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: And I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president and the president has a right to have an attorney general he feels comfortable with. Jeff Sessions has done a fine job. He's an honorable man. Replacing him before the election, to me, would be a nonstarter. The idea of having a new attorney general in the first term of President Trump's administration, I don't think is very likely.


HENDERSON: This is interesting and new from Lindsey Graham, the idea this is inevitable not before the midterms but certainly could happen after.

WARREN: There has been a question ever since the president started attacking Jeff Sessions over a year ago that he would fire Sessions. The question has always been, well, would the Senate, controlled by Republicans, but very narrowly, would they even confirm a new -- this was seen as a political retribution act by the president.

But what's sort of tying all this together, and I think you can include the president, is nobody's really sure whether there are staff at the White House, supporters in the media and in the Republican Party -- you certainly talk to Republican Party conservatives about this as I have -- nobody is quite sure what's coming down the pike next.


WARREN: Everybody is kind of -- I think that is what has changed from tuesday, this sense that --


LUCEY: Anything could happen.

WARREN: Right, and we have to be careful to not overplay our hand before we know what everybody else has. Most importantly, what Mueller has. HENDERSON:

HENDERSON: Up next, if you're wondering whether or not the president will pardon Paul Manafort, just remind yourself he's been through hardships before, and he always does just fine.


TRUMP: I've always had controversy in my life, and I've always succeeded. I've always won. I've always won. I would honestly give myself an A-plus, and so would many other people.



[12:16:17] HENDERSON: President Trump today avoiding all questions about a pardon for Paul Manafort and all other questions, too. Listen to the president moments ago at the White House.


TRUMP: I want to thank everyone in the room very much. Good job. Thank you, everybody, very much.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go! Make your way out! We're finished. Keep moving. Let's go, let's go.


HENDERSON: His former campaign chairman was found guilty of eight tax and bank fraud counts earlier this week. He faces up to 80 years in prison. Manafort will stand for a second trial next month in D.C. The White House has also avoided a direct answer but continues to distance the president from the situation.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is the president now planning on or intent on pardoning Paul Manafort?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The Manafort case doesn't have anything to do with the president.


SANDERS: I'm not aware of any conversations regarding that at all.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is Mr. Manafort a simple candidate for a presidential pardon?

SANDERS: Once again, that's not something that has been up for discussion. I don't have anything for you.


HENDERSON: However, the president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, doesn't seem to have gotten the memo, telling the "New York Times" two separate things apparently in the same interview. Quote, "Mr. Giuliani said the two had discussed the political fallout should Mr. Trump grant a pardon to Mr. Manafort." The article later says, "Mr. Giuliani said a pardon for Mr. Manafort was not under consideration."

Anybody's guess as to which is it? Is this just trying to muddy the waters?

LUCEY: You look at the FOX interview today, the president didn't rule it out. He didn't really answer the question. He did speak, you know, quite favorably about Paul Manafort. The White House is trying to put some distance between this. They're obviously not trying to signal anything. But we also know that the president likes pardon power. There's only so many things he can do unilaterally. He likes it when he can do things. It is a muscle or a tool he's flexed so far.

HENDERSON: We've seen it. He pardoned or commuted sentences for nine people, some of those most famous ones Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby and Dinesh D'Souza, as you said. He's also kind of using the language of pardoning when he talks about Manafort. He essentially frames him as being railroaded by the justice system in the same way he framed pardons for these folks.

WARREN: Yes. And looking at it from his perspective, there really doesn't seem to be a case against it. If there were evidence that, for instance, Republicans in his own party would really put up a fight about this and say this clearly shows obstruction of justice, which is what a lot of Democrats are arguing, if he were to do this, then maybe there would be a risk. But he seems to use these pardons as almost political tools, to shore up support on his side of his base. I think a Manafort pardon would do that. I don't really think he would suffer from a lot of political consequences. If he's going to be impeached by a Democratic Congress, it's not going to matter if he pardons Manafort or not. But pardoning Manafort would seem to give him some short-term political benefit.

HENDERSON: And there are a few Republicans who are talking about this as a political risk. Here are a few on the Hill talking about it.


REP. CHRIS STEWART, (R), UTAH: Mr. Manafort, though he was a friend of the president, he should be held accountable for his illegal activities. I hope the president doesn't pardon him. I don't think he's considering that, but it would be a terrible mistake if he did, just to pardon someone because they were a friend of the president.

GRAHAM: I don't think a pardon under these circumstances would go over well.

[12:19:58] SEN. MIKE ROUNDS, (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: We understand the president has the constitutional authority to do so, but we think politically it would be a very serious mistake.




BACON: The things they've warned him, please, do not do this, like firing Mueller, he actually often does not do. So the fact --

HENDERSON: You feel like these are stern warnings?

BACON: These are really stern for the Republicans in Congress of today. Yes, I think they are trying to say please. The other thing is a pardon would have mattered more if it happened in January of this year or he was - if a part of the signal is do not talk to prosecutors for Michael Cohen, because -- a lot of the witnesses, Don McGahn, other witnesses --


BACON: I'm not sure the pardon would hurt Mueller's investigation the way it would have in January.

BADE: I'm willing to bet a lot of those Republicans saying, oh, no, don't do a pardon right now. If he were to do a pardon, they would change their tune to find a way to sort of explain it away.

BACON: Of course.

BADE: But they're worried about one thing, the midterm elections. Republicans have turned a blind eye to a whole bunch of things that the president has done that they find unsavory and totally unethical. But they just want to be re-elected. They want to keep control of Congress. They have a bunch of swing districts where there are people who are independent minded that don't necessarily identified as Republicans or Democrats. They don't like the president. If they see him pardoning someone to potentially get himself out of hot water, you know, they're going to vote for Democrats.

HENDERSON: One of the things we heard recently was from a Paul Manafort juror, who had interesting things to say about the deliberation. Here she was talking about it last night on FOX News.


PAULA DUNCAN, JUROR IN PAUL MANAFORT TRIAL: There was one holdout. We all tried to convince her to look at the paper trail. We laid it out in front of her again and again. She still said that she had a reasonable doubt. That's the way the jury worked. We didn't want it to be hung. So we tried for an extended period of time to convince her but, in the end, she held out, and that's why we have 10 counts that did not get a verdict.


HENDERSON: Manafort likely to face a much tougher jury, even though that one was pretty tough in D.C., when he goes on trial next month.

LUCEY: Yes, certainly the Manafort story is not over. Legal troubles are not over. It's also interesting as a first we saw of this. It's the first test and the first outing for the Mueller team. A lot of people feel like it was a real vindication for them to get this kind of verdict. So we'll see how he fairs in the next one.

WARREN: I think it was also just nice separately that juror was an out and out Trump supporter. She says to see the institution of the judicial system. She still supports him and is going to vote for him in 20 but felt compelled because of the evidence. It's nice to see people put those partisan instincts aside, at least regular people, if not those in Washington.

HENDERSON: A fun quote from Bill Kristol on what we saw yesterday and the pardon speculation that's running wild. He said, "You think yesterday was lit? You haven't seen anything yet. Wait until the day next year when President Pence pardons Donald Trump."

WARREN: I told Bill what "lit" means.


HENDERSON: Now no one can use the word "lit" --



HENDERSON: Next, how are lawmakers dealing with the president's legal worries and impeachment talk? Just ask someone who's seen it all before.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What has it been like to be here in the Senate as a Republican?

GRAHAM: It's a lot like the Clinton years. Like every day there's something new. I'm just trying to keep my head down.


[12:28:25] HENDERSON: With only 75 days until the midterms, the sudden legal storm surrounding the president and the escalating impeachment chatter is a catch 22 for both political parties. Democratic leaders worry that talk of impeaching the president, if they take back the House, could actually motivate Republican voters, and they're encouraging candidates to completely avoid the "I" word. Republican party leaders, on the other hand, are encouraging incumbents in the tightest races to call out convictions and corruptions, and distance themselves from the president despite his ability to fire up the base.

We have congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, who's on Capitol Hill. Phil, it's very much gut check time for both parties on the Hill.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: No question about it. And 12 days until Labor Day, which has always kind of been the official launch of the midterm blitz. Maybe that's less relevant this day and age. But it is the time when people start spending money. People start deciding what the message is going to be. There's an interesting split screen right now. You also need to split it not just between Republicans and Democrats but also House and Senate. Move the Senate aside for a second. Because of the way the map is, because of the people that are running for re-election, because of the fact that so many more Democrats are facing off with challenges than Republicans are. We're focused on the House when it comes to this issue. Republicans in the House, many of which come from districts either won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 or maybe are plus three, plus four, plus five districts. They have a different calculation now than a lot of their base colleagues have. Because of that, they've been told now for a couple months, if you need to split with the president, go ahead and do it. It's basically how do you save your seat. If your constituents aren't thrilled with the president, that might mean having to do that.

On the impeachment issue, we saw it loud and clear yesterday. In the Senate, not a single Democrat I talked to really wanted to touch the issue. In the House, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, sending a letter to her colleagues, making clear there are other issues they want to focus on.