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Trump Org Finance Chief Granted Immunity in Cohen Probe; Manhattan DA Pursuing Charges Against Trump Org; Trump Intensifies Public Battle with Sessions. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 12:30   ET



[12:33:29] NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: A new reality for the White House today, all the president's men weren't loyal. The man who knows the ins and outs of the president's finances, Allen Weisselberg, cooperated with prosecutors. So did David Pecker, the tabloid boss who reportedly kept evidence of the president's (INAUDIBLE) locked away in an office safe. A literal chamber of secrets to borrow from Harry Potter.

So did Michael Cohen, the president's former fixer who admitted to committing at least two felonies at the discretion -- at the direction of the president. Crimes prosecutors say they could prove with text messages, audio recordings, and chats sent over encrypted apps.

The unprecedented level of cooperation from the president's most trusted has the White House wrangling with this very important question today. What do federal prosecutors know about their boss that they don't?

And I'm going to ask Matt Viser here of the Boston Globe. This in some ways has moved from Russia to the president's sort of personal finances and personal dealings, something that must make this president very uncomfortable.

DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE BOSTON GLOBE: Yes, I mean, the walls are sort of closing in from all sorts of areas among people that he has trusted for a long time. And I think that that puts him in an extremely vulnerable situation. But it's not dealing yet with Russia and collusion, and the thing that Mueller has been looking at. It's of a much more personal nature.

And these are things that, you know, during the presidential campaign, he didn't release his taxes. He ran a private business.

[12:35:00] So we didn't -- we're learning new things about him that we didn't know about before as an electorate when we elected him. So I think that that opens up a lot of new channels for investigation.

HENDERSON: And the president apparently at one point is asking people around him, how did this move from Russia to these issues? I sort of point you to what happened with President Clinton moving from one thing to something else. ELIANA JOHNSON, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: When you talk to the president's allies, this is something that they beat on constantly. They say these charges have absolutely nothing to do with Russia. And that is, I think, a case you'll be hearing increasingly from them. And they're frustrated that the news media is not pointing this out more often.

So I think you're going to see increasingly the president's allies on television making the case that this is a prosecution and a special counsel run amok, gone far field from the initial case that they were -- their initial mandate to investigate collusion in the election.

HENDERSON: And they'll have sort of something else to point to. The New York Times is reporting that, "The Manhattan District Attorney's Office is considering pursuing criminal charges against the Trump Organization and two senior company officials in connection with Michael D. Cohen's hush money payment to an adult film actress, according to two officials with knowledge of the matter."

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes. And I think that's important because these state charges Trump could not pardon people who were there. You know, I've always thought that this was really dangerous territory for Trump, in some ways more dangerous than the Russia investigation because of the women, the personal life, things people can relate to.

The gender gap for the party is huge. I just think that the more attention that's focused on this, the more it causes trouble for President Trump with women, and that's -- they're going to be a huge force in this midterm election. And I think it figures right into that.

HENDERSON: And Abby, harder for the president to distance himself in many ways from people like Weisselberg.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, but he's going to try. I mean, we heard him this week (INAUDIBLE) Michael Cohen. He at least acknowledged Michael Cohen worked for him.

HENDERSON: Yes, yes. But he's like sometimes I saw him --


PHILLIP: He said, I hardly ever saw him, he worked with me part-time. No one believes that's true. So the president is never going to let that get in the way of him trying to distance himself from these folks.

But to your point -- I mean, they have real information that they may or may not know about things that went on in the organization around Trump, around his personal life. And you started the segment by talking about I think a really important point, which is what does the president's own staff not know about all of this? And I think the answer is a lot.

HENDERSON: Yes, because they've been relying on him as a narrator. PHILLIP: For the most part, the people who work for him in the White House right now are people who basically just came into Trump's life in the last several years. They don't know all that much. They didn't let very many people in the campaign or around the president. I'm not even sure they vetted the president, really.

So I think there are probably a lot of things that they are not prepared to deal with that are going to come out as a result of this whole probe. And it's going to pose some challenges to them. I mean, perhaps his lawyers are doing some of that due diligence now, but I think the White House is going to be caught surprised by quite a bit that might unfold now that this is the southern district of New York and the, you know, New York state prosecutors and the Mueller probe. It's just a lot of things that they don't know about.

HULSE: And they weren't involved in the campaign so they weren't -- A lot of the people around him now weren't in the campaign. You know, they don't know a lot of history with the president.

HENDERSON: They don't go back to New York, right?

HULSE: It's one of the reasons that the president's legal strategy kind of got in trouble with Don McGahn because the lawyers said, well, the president said he didn't do anything wrong, so let's, you know, let's provide our cooperation. Well, you know, that's the president's guarantee.

HENDERSON: Yes. And we'll see. We haven't heard yet from the president. I guess we have to sort of check our Twitter feed and see if he's tweeting all about this.

Next, Congressman Duncan Hunter says he's innocent but suggests his wife might not be.


[12:43:45] HENDERSON: Topping our political radar today, President Trump and the first lady will be in Ohio tonight for a big GOP fundraising dinner, which Republican governor and Trump critic John Kasich is planning to skip. The president and the rest of us could finally get the results of that closely contested special election for the Ohio's 12th Congressional district while he's there.

Republican Troy Balderson, whom the president of course backed, he holds a razor-thin margin over Democrat Danny O'Connor.

A Georgia board voted down a plan to close seven of nine polling places in a majority African-American county ahead of the midterms. Now critics said it was an effort to suppress the black vote in Georgia's governor's race where Stacey Abrams whose African-American is running against Georgia's secretary of state Brian Kemp. Abrams applauded the decision and said she would ensure all eligible Georgians have access to the ballot box to cast their votes and make their voices heard.

California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife have pleaded not guilty to charges they misused more than $250,000 in campaign funds. The allegations in the indictment are quite stunning, and some of them are truly, truly bizarre.

[12:45:00] The indictment says it's clear that Hunter was aware of his wife's spending, but it appears that the congressman is trying to shift the blame to her.


REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: She handled my finances throughout my entire military career, and that continued on when I got into Congress. Because I'm gone five days a week, I'm home for two. So -- and she was also the campaign manager.

So whatever she did, that will be looked at too, I'm sure. But I didn't do it. I didn't spend any money illegally. I didn't -- did not use campaign money.


Next, the president's campaign to bully his attorney general out of a job.


HENDERSON: An outpouring of support this hour for Senator John McCain after he announces he's decided to end treatment for brain cancer.

Plus, new information this hour on Michael Cohen's money and where it came from.

[12:50:01] The Wall Street Journal reporting that part of the $4 million Cohen admitted to not paying taxes on included a $100,000 brokerage fee paid for by a company linked to number -- a member of the Qatari royal family. We're carefully tracking both of these stories. And as we learned more -- as we learned, another Trump insider cooperated with federal prosecutors.

Also today -- a lot of stories to get to today, whatever shred of goodwill President Trump had left for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it's gone now. President Trump again making it clear over the past few days that he's out of patience with Sessions. This morning, he took to Twitter openly mocking Sessions. Here's what he had to say.

"Jeff, this is great, what everyone wants. So look into all of the corruption on the other side. And, come on, Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting. And this, so unfair, Jeff, double standard."

The knives came out after the president told Fox News on Thursday that Sessions, quote, never took control of the Justice Department. That's got to hurt. It's worth pointing out that when the president has criticized him in the past, Sessions has mostly kept quiet, but not this time. He released a terse and biting statement responding directly to the president's criticism.

He said, "I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in. While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards and where they are not met, I take action."

Wow. So Matt, it's getting ugly. And why do you think this time is different from what we've seen from Sessions in the past?

VISER: First, I think it's remarkable. I mean, usually you have to wait to go to the presidential library, dig through old memos and sort of the back room fighting that's going on. Now this is just fully out.

HENDERSON: On Twitter. Yes.

VISER: And that's remarkable. But I think there's two things that are different here. One is the context of this week where the president is under deep legal scrutiny and there are a myriad of different ways in which he's exposed. And so I think him attacking Jeff Sessions on this week has a little bit of a different tenor.

But the second difference is the way that Republicans on the Hill are reacting to this is a little different now, where in the past they sort of jumped to the defense of the attorney general. This time they're sort of saying, well, the timing isn't quite right. You know, we should -- you know, there's an acceptance that he's going to get rid of Jeff Sessions just after the midterms. Please don't do it now.

So they're not necessarily just jumping to his defense full throat.

HENDERSON: There are a few who did sort of jump to his defense. And we'll play this now.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: There'd be concern about the domino effect going -- you know, what happens then to Rosenstein? Is this a way to go after the Mueller investigation? So it's a big concern.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think it would be a mistake, and I don't think it would be good for the country.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: He's a man of integrity. I've worked with him 20 years up here. And you get to know people. And I wish him the best.


HENDERSON: I wish him the best.

JOHNSON: Those statements are what Republicans -- the sentiments Republicans used to be united behind. For the first time yesterday, there was a crack in the Republican stone wall. But those sentiments are really one of the major things that have kept the president from firing Jeff Sessions because Republicans had said we will not confirm a successor. And that really seemed to box president Trump in because if he fired Sessions, he would be stuck with a member of his cabinet or Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who might even be worse than Sessions in President Trump's mind. For the first time yesterday, Lindsey Graham came forward and said, this isn't a sustainable situation. We're open to confirming somebody else after the midterms.

And Chuck Grassley, the current chairman of the Judiciary Committee who runs the schedule about hearing -- confirmation hearings for new attorney generals, echoed that. Bob Corker said this is pretty much inevitable after the midterms.

So the wall of support Sessions has had among his former colleagues on Capitol Hill seems to be crumbling, and Republicans on the Hill view it as inevitability that there will be a new A.G. in the midterms.

HULSE: Well, there's another element here too --

HENDERSON: Go ahead, Carl.

HULSE: -- because Jeff Sessions has been opposing this criminal justice reform that Chuck Grassley wants really badly. And Chuck Grassley is mad. He thinks that he is -- he got Sessions confirmed, he's helped protect him, and Sessions is still in the way of his major legislative initiative. So I think there's some of that figuring in there and sending a message like you need to go along with what we're pushing here.

HENDERSON: Abby, what's interesting, the president face to face with Sessions yesterday. What did he say to Sessions?

PHILLIP: Nothing about this. I mean, this was a meeting about prison reform and by all accounts they didn't discuss this at all, which is typical of this president.

[12:55:03] He will attack you on Twitter, he will attack you in interviews, but to your face, not necessarily.

HENDERSON: Mum's the word.

PHILLIP: And I think that this is the pattern. But, you know, these members of Congress are correct. It is not sustainable for the president to be warring openly with his attorney general. And at some point, that has to be resolved. And it can't happen now because they have too much on their plate before the midterms.

HENDERSON: We'll see how this ends.

Thanks for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. Wolf picks up our special coverage right after a quick break.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining --