Return to Transcripts main page


Lawmakers to Grill Bruce Ohr on Ties to Steele Dossier; Manafort Sought Plea Deal to Avoid 2nd Trial; Lindsey Graham: Sessions Replacement Would Require Mueller to Finish Investigation; Giuliani: Haven't Heard from Mueller in 3 Weeks Despite Interview Counterproposal; North Korea Warns U.S. Denuclearization Talks "May Fall Apart"; Trump Puts Out Statement Honoring McCain after Insider Urging; McCain Penned Final Letter to Americans Before Death. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 28, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: I don't know what could be more sexy than intellectual bros in Speedos -- Erica?

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. I don't know. I'm not eligible for that. I can only play Connect Four.

Coy Wire, good to see you. Thank you.

Thanks to all of your for joining us today.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ryan Nobles, in today for Kate Bolduan.

It's a busy morning in the Russia investigation. On Capitol Hill, a Justice Department official, who is a frequent target of President Trump, is testifying behind closed doors. Lawmakers are expected to grill Bruce Ohr about his ties to Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the controversial dossier on Candidate Trump and his ties to Russia. There's a lot on the line for Ohr since the president threatened to pull his security clearance.

Also this morning, Paul Manafort's lawyers are back in court to prepare for his next trial. This, as we learn the former Trump campaign chairman sought a plea deal to avoid a second grueling court battle.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has more on the Manafort case.

But let's begin with Jessica Schneider who has more on what's happening with Bruce Ohr.

Jessica, what exactly are House investigators trying to learn from Bruce Ohr today?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Ryan, conservatives on Capitol Hill, they say they want the truth from Bruce Ohr. House Freedom Caucus chairman, Mark Meadows, says he has more than 60 questions for the 30-year veteran of the Justice Department. Of course, Republicans have been digging in on Bruce Ohr for more than a year now. The president himself has ramped up the rhetoric in recent weeks, even threatening to revoke Ohr's security clearance.

The question is, what's their big issue? Bruce Ohr met multiple times with Christopher Steele. Steele, of course, is the former British spy who drafted that dossier with salacious but unverified details about Donald Trump during the election. Republicans, they have been raising issues about the timing of the meetings. They are saying that those meetings often occurred around crucial milestones in the early days of the Russia investigation, including when FIA court warrants were secured. They want to know why Ohr met with Steele at all, especially after the FBI terminated its relationship with the former British spy.

Ryan, this closed-door hearing, it started around 9:00 a.m. It could prove to be a long and contentious day for Bruce Ohr. He is still employed at the DOJ. But he was demoted after some of the details about the meetings with Christopher Steele became known. We will look for more information as it trickles out throughout the day. This is behind closed doors -- Ryan?

NOBLES: A lot of it behind closed doors. How much will we learn?

Jessica Schneider, thank you.

Shimon, let's get back to the Manafort case. What do we know about his efforts to get a plea deal?

SCHNEIDER: This was first reported by the "Wall Street Journal." They say that Paul Manafort, his team were in brief discussions with the special counsel, with Robert Mueller and his team, about a possible plea deal to avoid a second trial. Not a lot is known of exactly what the prosecutors, the special counsel was looking for. It appears at the very least that this was not some kind of a flip deal. This wasn't to gain his cooperation or anything like that. It was simply, it appears, at this point, that it was to sort of avoid a second trial. Of course, as we know, Manafort had been convicted, now facing a substantial amount of time in jail, perhaps the rest of his life. Really, a second trial even if he is convicted wouldn't necessarily add anything to his jail time or his sentence. Perhaps prosecutors and the defense teams were trying to avoid another trial.

The other thing that's important here, Ryan, is that if Paul Manafort was to plead guilty like what we saw in the Michael Cohen case last week, he would have to stand up in court and admit to some of these crimes. There could be issues about what Paul Manafort exactly wants to admit to and how he would admit to. That could be one of the sticking points. For now, at the very least, what we do know is none of this is progressing and none of this is happening. We do expect his second trial to begin later in September.

NOBLES: All right, Shimon, thank you.

A lot to unpack now. Joining me to discuss this, Joey Jackson, a CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney, and Jackie Kucinich, CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief of the "Daily Beast." Joey, let's start with you.

The "Wall Street Journal" saying Manafort seeking a plea deal before the trial. Is this a sign that he may be open to the idea of flipping? Is he just pessimistic about his chances in the second trial?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Ryan, good to see you. I don't think it's about a plea deal at all. You have to look at this, and look at it not only from a legal but a political perspective. You have a president of the United States who has given the indication he admires his loyalty and that he's a very good man and he feels very sad for him. I think those are all signs that relate to a pardon. To crack at this point after you have been found guilty of eight different counts, I think, would not be in his best interest. I think this is more of taking a stake of should we be moving forward. Not only on his lawyers' part but on the part of the Justice Department. You already have your guilty verdict. Even the not guilty verdicts, that he was found not guilty of, those could be included, believe it or not, in his sentencing. It's called relative conduct. So why should there be another trial? I think they are trying to get a sense of whether it's relevant to move forward.

[11:05:24] NOBLES: You don't think he is less hopeful that a pardon can come?

JACKSON: I don't see it. At this point, what would be -- if he doesn't get pardoned, his life is in jeopardy in as much as he faces a life sentence on the charges on which he was already convicted. To go now and say, OK, I'm going to cooperate doesn't make sense to me legally or practicality.

NOBLES: Jackie, there's been many reports from inside the White House that the president was very concerned about this first Manafort trial. We are about to go through another one in a few weeks because it doesn't look like this plea deal is going to happen. What's the level of concern for the White House about going through this process again?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think just having this person that was so close to the campaign again stand trial is never really a good thing for the White House. It reminds people that this occurred. That said, I think Joey is right. I don't know that they are concerned about Manafort flipping at this point. Especially because the president has said such nice words about Manafort. You had Manafort's lawyer say something to the effect of, it's nice to know we have the president's support. Wink, nod. You know, I just -- I don't know there's going to be as much concern about this one as there was, perhaps, in the last one other than the fact it resurfaces everything again.

NOBLES: Everybody continues to talk about this --


NOBLES: -- about the president. Joey, the "Wall Street Journal" also brought Robert Mueller into this

conversation, that he was raising concerns about this possible plea deal.

JACKSON: Listen, the fact is that Robert Mueller is riding high. Why? Because look at all the results he accomplished. The second shoe hasn't dropped as it relates to whether there's collusion. Everyone is waiting to see whether there's any Russia connection. He has his guilty verdict. He got that. Now going into this particular trial, the issue now becomes -- he is propelled by the guilty verdict he secured. What now is left for him? You have a person who is obviously been declared guilty. What more do you want out of that? I think Robert Mueller has bigger fishes to fry at this point as it relates to the immunity deals that he stuck. We know about the Pecker deal as it relates to the "National Enquirer." We know about the Weisselberg deal as it relates to the money man. I think that's going to be the special counsel's focus, to see what, if anything else, he can get on the president.

NOBLES: Jackie, the other big thing in Washington today, Bruce Ohr appearing before the House Intelligence Committee. He has become the conservative media's latest punching bag. His name comes up often in conservative media outlets. What exactly was his role with the Russia investigation? Is any of this criticism warranted?

KUCINICH: He is a bureaucrat at the Department of Justice. He had some contact with Christopher Steele, and Rod Rosenstein was his supervisor. What Democrats will tell you is that this is Republicans trying to really make up for the fact that this is a conspiracy theory and hasn't yielded results for them. Republicans are saying this guy has questions to answer as to why he was involved with Christopher Steele. His wife, Nellie -- also the president tweeted about her -- worked for Fusion GPS. Republicans have a lot of questions about that.

This is -- should be noted that House Republicans are coming back to D.C. for this closed-door meeting. This isn't necessarily something that's part of the regular session. They are out of session right now. We will have to see what comes of this. But this is a very -- the House is broken down, this has broken down to partisan battle lines, I don't think you will get a lot of consensus on this one.

NOBLES: It makes you wonder how fruitful these talks will be because of how partisan both sides have become on this issue.

Jackie, let's talk about Lindsey Graham. He is making the rounds on morning television. He made news last week when he said that after the midterms that Jeff Sessions should be replaced. Listen to what he said this morning.


SEN LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Nobody is going to take Jeff's place that doesn't commit to the Senate and the country as a whole that Mueller will be allowed to finish his job without political interference. (END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: Donald Trump hears that and thinks, maybe Jeff Sessions should stick around?

KUCINICH: I have learned not to predict what the president is going to do.


I have to say. It also should be noted that Senators aren't happy with Jeff Sessions for something having nothing to do with Robert Mueller. They are not happy that his thwarting criminal justice reform. You had Senator Grassley say something to the effect of, I helped him save his job and now he is doing this to us. We can't take that out of the fact that they are not happy with Jeff Sessions either for a completely different reason.

The other thing is, to get confirmed through the Senate, I don't know if an attorney general can make that promise that Mueller will be able to do his job. Especially if it's someone that's a little bit less -- that's a little more loyal to the president on this particular topic. That's going to be a very tough thing to promise to that Senate panel.

[11:10:19] NOBLES: Joey, one other big Russia piece of news out today. Rudy Giuliani telling CNN that Trump's legal team hasn't heard from Robert Mueller in three weeks, despite the fact they offered a counterproposal to his interview request. What should we take from that?

JACKSON: I think the special counsel have come to the recognition that Trump potentially is not having a word to say. I think people know that if he does say something -- you heard Giuliani refer to a perjury trap. That special counsel has a lot of information. What can Trump give them? State of mind? That's what he was thinking? We could read his state of mind based upon his tweets, his anger and other things. In my view, there's no way that Trump goes down and sits with the special counsel. It would be bad for him. It would be bad certainly for any future that he has as it relates to potential impeachment. It doesn't make sense. The special counsel recognizes that it's not going to happen.

NOBLES: All right, Joey Jackson, Jackie Kucinich, thank you for joining us.

Jackie, you did a great job putting up with these two guys from the State University of New York College. We handled everything all right.

KUCINICH: Any time.



NOBLES: Thanks. Coming up, the reaction to the death of Senator John McCain. Moments

ago, Defense Secretary James Mattis praised McCain for representing all of the ideals America stands for. More tributes are expected soon from the Senate floor.

Plus, North Korea now warning the United States that talks over their nuclear program could fall apart. Why?

Stay with us.


[11:16:06] NOBLES: North Korea says talks about denuclearization are on the verge of collapse because the U.S. isn't meeting expectations on moving forward with a peace treaty. Sources familiar with the situation tell CNN the warning came in a letter delivered to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That led President Trump to cancel Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang with a new U.S. special envoy to North Korea.

Joining me now with details is correspondent, Will Ripley.

Will, what did North Korea's letter say?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This letter was reported by Josh Rogin, our colleague, who says it was delivered to Secretary Pompeo and passed to President Trump, who read it and then decided it was bad enough they should cancel Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang just hours before he was supposed to get on the plane with his new special envoy for North Korean affairs.

The essence of the message delivered, according to sources I spoke with overnight, is this, the North Koreans feel the denuclearization talks are at stake and may fall apart. And that if they were to fall apart, the North Koreans could go back to the nuclear and missile activities they had been engaging in before this very short and very fragile period of diplomacy. The reason, as you mentioned, Ryan, is this issue of the peace treaty. The North Koreans think the peace treaty should come up front to give security guarantees to Kim Jong-Un before he gives up his nuclear weapons. There are many in the administration that feel a peace treaty is the kind of concession that should come near the end of the denuclearization process after North Korea has handed over a significant portion of its arsenal. That issue above all else, even above sanctions relieves is what appears to have ground these talks to half and threatens to derail the whole process all together -- Ryan?

NOBLES: It seems like a significant divide, Will. You have covered the Kim regime for some time. What's your take on what North Korea is up to here?

RIPLEY: At this point, if you look at where they were before diplomacy began and where they would be if things were to fall apart with the United States, they now have a better relationship than in years with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit North Korea very soon. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in is expected to travel to Pyongyang next month for another summit with Kim Jong-Un. The "Washington Post" is reporting that there may be a growing divide between the U.S. and its key ally, South Korea, over how to best handle Pyongyang. So could North Korea have driven a wedge between Seoul and Washington? Now that China and North Korea are getting along well, the economic pressure has been eased considerably. Could the U.S. even go back to the maximum pressure campaign if it wanted to, given that President Trump last week talked about the fact that China isn't cooperating anymore? Frankly, the answer is, no. The pressure doesn't work without China. So North Korea has gained a lot.

And by the way, they still have all the nuclear weapons in their arsenal they had at the beginning of the process that the U.S. insisted they must not have -- Ryan?

NOBLES: No doubt, we are a long way from the success that President Trump was heralding after the Singapore summit. Much has changed.

Will Ripley, live from Hong Kong. Thank you, Will.

[11:19:00] Coming up, new details on President Trump's belated statement honoring the life of Senator John McCain. A source says that White House insiders helped convince Trump to have a change of heart. We will have that next.



GEN. JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: And my deepest condolences to his family for a loss of a man who represented all the ideals America stands for. Senator John McCain was a man who served his country honorably as a naval officer, as a defiant prisoner of war standing with his brothers in arms until all returned home together, and as a leader in Congress, including as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.



NOBLES: That was Defense Secretary James Mattis moments ago adding his voice to the tributes and remembrances pouring in for Senator John McCain. It comes after President Trump changed gears to honor the American hero.

Let's go live to CNN's Jeremy Diamond at the White House.

Jeremy, there are a series of events honoring the life of Senator McCain this week. The president won't be attending. Who do we expect to go in his place?

[11:24:50] JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ryan, as you now, it was John McCain's wish for the president not to attend his funeral services. The president is honoring that wish. Instead, sending some of his top officials to attend the various memorial and funeral services in John McCain's honor this week. The vice president, Mike Pence, he will address a ceremony at the U.S. capitol on Friday where Senator McCain will be lying in state. The president also sending Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his national security advisor, John Bolton, to attend other services in McCain's honor on Saturday. The Senator will have a memorial service in his honor at the National Cathedral in Washington. On Sunday, a private burial ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy where Senator McCain will be laid to rest.

The president not attending any of those services. But he did yesterday offer a belated tribute to Senator McCain saying in a brief statement that he -- expressing his respect for the Senator's service to the country. That came nearly 48 hours after Senator McCain passed away. The president initially refused to release a lengthy statement honoring Senator McCain's service to the United States. But he was urged yesterday, in particular, by several senior officials to release a statement. One source familiar with the matter tells me this morning that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly were particularly effective in urging the president to release this statement yesterday saying that the president respects McCain's service. They were instrumental to that decision. Now it seems the country can move forward with honoring Senator McCain's service and his legacy to this country.

NOBLES: Jeremy Diamond, thank you for that report live from the White House.

Senator McCain penned a final letter to the American people before his death on Saturday. In it, he expressed hope that his beloved country would emerge from its current trials, quote, "stronger than before." His message read aloud by his longtime friend and aide, Rick Davis.


RICK DAVIS, FORMER AIDE TO JOHN MCCAIN: We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that sow resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the world. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.


NOBLES: Joining me to discuss this is John Shadegg, a former Republican congressman from Arizona.

Congressman, first, your reaction to that extraordinary moment to hear Senator McCain's final message to the nation. What stood out to you the most?

JOHN SHADEGG, (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN: I think this is a time to recognize an American hero. If we want this country to be better, if we want it to achieve a kind of higher calling, as Senator McCain said in those final words, then we need to recognize American heroes. John McCain was certainly an American hero. He was an American icon. He is a gentleman who, by whatever measure, whether during his military service or during his congressional career, he served his country honorably. He called on others to a higher purpose just as he did there in the final words. I think we ought to be focusing on that kind of person to inspire Americans and particularly young people to come and serve themselves. He exemplified everything great about America. I think people want to focus on those great things. I think that's what we should be talking about. The stories of his heroism while he was in the military, jumping out of an airplane on the deck of an aircraft carrier where the carrier was on fire and his plane could have exploded at any moment. Instead of running for cover, he runs to a sailor on the deck holding a hose that he can't hold on to because of the pressure and helps fight the fire. Heroism at that young age, heroism and service to country throughout his entire life. If you think about John McCain, he is summed up in three words, duty, honor, country. That was his creed. It was the creed of a guy who came from service to the country. His father and his grandfather were not men of wealth but men of service to the country. I think this is a moment in which we can all be inspired by the likes of John McCain. And there will be more John McCains and there have been great people like John McCain in the past. The nation is built on them and their sacrifice and their devotion.

NOBLES: One of the most powerful lines in that speech was when Rick Davis read the line from Senator McCain where he said, quote, "We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down."

Do you hear that as a criticism of the current president?

[11:29:50] SHADEGG: I really think this is about John McCain's view of the world, which was to look for the positive. In 2008, I helped him in his presidential race. In 2008, the theme of that campaign was that all of us, young people and all Americans, should at some point in our lives think about giving ourselves to a cause greater than ourselves. That was one of his themes.