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President Trump Changes Story on New Attorney General; Michelle Obama Blasts Trump Over Birtherism; Florida Senate Fight; Trump Claims He "Doesn't Know" Acting AG He Chose, But Calls Him "Very Smart & Very Respected". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 9, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Get it done. We have breaking news on Donald Trump's central role in the possibly illegal hush money payoffs.

THE LEAD starts right now.

A new "Wall Street Journal" report says that Donald Trump directed the deals paying off a porn star and a Playmate to keep quiet, and the feds know about it. How serious a threat might this be to his presidency?

President Trump's post-election lashing out continues, as he insists he does not know Matt Whitaker, the new acting attorney general in charge of Mueller, a guy who President Trump says, "I know Matt Whitaker."

Plus: unforgivable. Why former first lady Michelle Obama says why she can never forgive the president and why President Trump is saying, hey, the feeling is mutual.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in our politics lead. "The Wall Street Journal" this afternoon a huge story, revealing the closest, most direct connection of Donald Trump so far to hush money payments made to silence porn star Stormy Daniels and 1998 Playboy Playmate of the year Karen McDougal.

Clear indication President Trump and his team have been lying to the American people for years and that he may, in fact, have also broken federal election laws.

"The Journal" reporting federal prosecutors have evidence of Trump's direct participation in those payments, finding Trump was involved in or briefed on the agreements nearly every step of the way.

"The Journal" also laying out connections we've not heard before, in which -- quote -- "Mr. Trump intervened directly to suppress stories about his alleged sexual encounters with women, according to interviews with three dozen people who have direct knowledge of the events, or who have been briefed on them, as well as court papers, corporate records and other documents" -- unquote.

President Trump, of course, infamously said he knew nothing about the payments. That was clearly a lie, according to this story. In One incident newly revealed today, the president allegedly told his former fixer, Michael Cohen -- quote -- "Get it done," after Trump learned of Stormy Daniels' plans to talk publicly about their alleged affair.

This was in the fraught, high-stakes era before the presidential election, but after the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape. President Trump's lawyer have declined to comment on the "Wall Street Journal"'s story.

Let's go now to CNN's Sara Murray.

Sara, the president's participation was even laid out by federal prosecutors' charging document of Michael Cohen. They just didn't name Trump.


And I think the "WSJ" story does sort of a good explanation of how we got to the point where Michael Cohen was in a courtroom earlier this year, implicating President Trump in this payment scheme. And in those charging documents for Michael Cohen, it said that Cohen coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature and timing of the payments.

And then, of course, Cohen went to court and said he made these payments at the direction of a candidate for federal office, which, of course, was then candidate Trump, now President Trump.

The other interesting point in the "WSJ" story is that there was this draft indictment, an 80-page draft indictment that was never filed against Michael Cohen that also detailed a lot of Trump's involvement in this scheme. But, again, that was never filed.

Instead, CNN has confirmed that indictment existed, but Michael Cohen got engaged in these plea negotiations and so the public never saw that 80-page document, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Sara, the "Wall Street Journal" story also lays out a 2015 meeting in Trump Tower. Candidate Donald Trump meets with media executive David Pecker. He heads the company that includes "The National Enquirer."

MURRAY: That's right. And this is sort of a look at where this all began.

It's this meeting between Donald Trump and David Pecker. AMI declined to comment on this story. But in this meeting, Donald Trump essentially says, look, what can you do to help me? And David Pecker apparently replies and says, well, what I can do is, I can make sure that I can silence these women. I can make these stories go away if women start coming out and making these allegations against you. And so this is sort of the beginning, allegedly, of this scheme that

now, you know, President Trump has been implicated in, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Let's talk about it with our legal experts.

Bottom-line this for me. How worried would you be if you were Donald Trump or his counsel?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSOCIATE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Well, it all depends on whether, now that we have got a new acting attorney general, the Southern District of New York is willing to actually do something about this.

But there are two aspects of this. One is the contribution aspect, that there's a limit on the amount of money that can be given to a campaign. But Mr. Trump's campaign had to disclose that. And then there's the expenditure side of things. That has to be disclosed as well. And if they communicated with each other to actually influence the campaign, that could be a crime.

So we don't know how much information they have. I really think at this point we have seen so many of these mounting allegations against this president, the Teflon president, it really comes down to the broader I think structural constitutional issues of whether there is going to be accountability at any level any more in our system of government.


And what do you think? Would you worry, were you Donald Trump or his lawyer?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I would have worried the second David Pecker got immunity, because I would have known at that point in time that the prosecution had some incentive to say, we're going to inoculate you, essentially, at this point in time. Whatever you're going to tell us is of enough interest, we're willing to say we're not going to prosecute whatever you say.

Second point, of course, the president is going to come back and say, hold on. There was maybe a dual purpose. Remember back when John Edwards ran for president and he had a mistress and there was the issue of the hung jury? And they weren't buying the idea of campaign finance violations then because there was an ulterior motive for trying to keep her silent.

Here, the president has a wife, he has businesses. He's going to tell you that's the reason he did it and it's not a campaign finance violation.

The bigger problem is David Pecker's own statement of, he asked me, what can you do for my campaign, not what can you do to help me, not what can you do to help me make Melania happy, happy wife, happy life or my businesses great? The question and the answer and the resulting actions he took would make me very nervous, and I would have a direct connection to a campaign finance violation, among many other things, as Kim was talking about.

TAPPER: And Pecker, of "The National Enquirer," he met with Trump over this payment to McDougal, the former Playboy Playmate of the year, and said that he spoke to an election law specialist, decided it wasn't a violation for him to offer her money for whatever it was, columns that never ran, as a way to keep her quiet about her alleged affair.


So, I mean, the question is whether it's being offered for purposes of actually helping the campaign. And as Laura mentioned with respect to John Edwards, I think the defense was that, well, he was actually trying to hide his affair so that he wasn't going to upset his pregnant wife.

Here, we also have a timing difference, right? So these affairs occurred many years before and these payments were made very close to the election. So that doesn't go in Mr. Trump's favor. But, sure, I think the fact that not only is Mr. Pecker, but Mr. Weisselberg, who was also involved in some of these arrangements or negotiations about how to pay these people off, he also has immunity. He's also talking.

I think there is a strong case, probably, to be made against the president. But then we have these constitutional issues.

TAPPER: And then just to remind people, presidents cannot be indicted, sitting presidents cannot be indicted, right?

COATES: According to a guide line. It's not set in stone. Frankly, guidelines never are supposed to be. But that seems to have been the pace up until now about a sitting president.

But the word sitting is very important. We already passed the midterm elections and that could be changed with time. Another thing here to remember is not just Weisselberg, not just Pecker. Michael Cohen also made a statement in open court, along with his own guilty plea -- he will be sentenced a few weeks from now, at the beginning of December -- talking about the president giving him a direct connection and really an order to violate campaign finance law and try to circumvent the accountability factor here.

So, you have got these adding things. Now, perhaps Michael Cohen is not the most sympathetic or even empathetic witness for people. Maybe he seemed as though it was contrived and had something to lose. He wasn't getting an olive branch from anyone. But that coupled with Weisselberg, who knows all of the finances, coupled with David Pecker, who is the person who had the magazine "The National Enquirer," it's mounting against the president.

WEHLE: We also have the Cohen raid, right? We have the documents that they obtained. I just want to make a point. I think there is some confusion really

as to whether a president can be indicted. Ken Starr, my former boss in the Whitewater investigation, his team concluded yes, and so did Leon Jaworski's team in connection with the Whitewater investigation -- or -- excuse me -- the Watergate investigation.

TAPPER: Watergate, Yes.


TAPPER: So take a -- just to go back into time until April, just to remind people what President Trump said when asked about these payments to Stormy Daniels made by Michael Cohen, he was on Air Force One, and this is when President Trump, according to all evidence, lied directly to the American people.


QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


QUESTION: Then why did Michael -- why did Michael Cohen make this, if there was no truth to her allegations?

TRUMP: Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you will have to ask Michael Cohen.

QUESTION: And do you know where he got the money to make that payment?

TRUMP: No, I don't know, no.


TAPPER: So he claims he did not know about the payment to Stormy Daniels, and he didn't know where Michael Cohen got the money to make that payment.

All available evidence is that those are lies. Does it matter legally that he told those lies?

WEHLE: I mean, it matters with respect to his credibility. But he didn't testify under oath, so there wouldn't be any perjury type charge.

And I should say, you know, we have this looming concept of impeachment as well. And for purposes of that, something like lying to the American public historically would be something that would be taken into account or could be legally taken into account.

TAPPER: Now, then, in August, President Trump eventually relented and admitted he knew of the hush money payments, but only later on, and claiming he didn't know -- he didn't -- it didn't come from the campaign. Take a listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Did you know about the payments?

TRUMP: Later on, I knew. Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, 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.



TAPPER: What do you make of that? Is that accurate? It doesn't matter? They didn't come from the campaign, they came from me.

COATES: Well, let's follow the logic here.

First, it was his attorney. Then it wasn't his attorney. Then it's a matter of, he didn't know about the payments. Then he knew about the payments. Then he signed on a swell to a lawsuit in California saying that, actually, I want to have a hand in not only Stormy Daniels' case, but Karen McDougal, which wasn't a case any longer.

So you have this evolution of his stories, combined with the idea, well, now that I'm telling you this issue about it coming from myself and not the campaign, it shouldn't make a difference.

Well, then you come up with the reporting aspects of it. And the reporting aspects of it, he, no matter what, whether it came from the campaign or himself, had to report it. It's not in a single financial disclosure document. It's not in any campaign finance reporting obligations.

And the fact he paid or knew about it after the fact, imagine, if you will, the logical extension of that. All I have to do is not remember long enough until after a campaign, and not report long enough. I can circumvent every single campaign finance law. That's never what it was intended to be, and I think he's on the hook.

TAPPER: Hush money payments significant legally? Forget the president for a second. Just for anybody out there, hush money payments, a candidate running for office hides them, that's a serious crime?

WEHLE: Well, the question is with respect to whether it can be considered an in-kind contribution.

So, if it's actual cash, we understand that. But if it's something of value and the timing, as we discussed, would be something of value, presumably -- Mr. Trump at that point, it was close to Stormy Daniels, was close to the "Access Hollywood" tape coming out. He was concerned about his candidacy, about voting.

And so I think the argument would be, sure, that actually was a contribution, in that it helped him get election -- potentially get elected. So, yes, it would be -- I think, probably trigger criminal implications under the campaign laws.

TAPPER: Kim Wehle, Laura Coates, thanks so much. Really appreciate your expertise.

President Trump feeling the backlash from his promotion of now acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, a man he now says he did not know, though originally he said he does know him. We knew that because he said it.

Also ahead, two words America never wanted to hear again, Florida recount. It's back, and it's getting nastier by the minute.

Stay with us.


[16:16:21] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In our politics lead today, President Trump lashing out even more than the brash businessman is usually known to do.

Ever since the midterm elections where Republicans lost the House and Democrats flipped seven governor seats, the president has alleged voter fraud in Florida with no evidence, fired his attorney general, replaced him with a loyalist, whom even some Trump defenders find unqualified, threatened to investigate house Democrats if they investigate his administration, and personally insulted at least four White House reporters, all of whom just happened to be African- American or Latino.

This presidential tear has come with some consequences. Concern in the White House is growing over the backlash over President Trump's new Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, repeatedly expressing a deep skepticism about the Russia investigation.

In an exclusive CNN video, Whitaker saying his first week on the job is going, quote, good. That comes hours after the president tried to say he doesn't even know Whitaker.

CNN's Pamela Brown at the White House.

Pamela, what the president said this morning, he doesn't know Matt Whitaker. Not true.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's not true. In fact, just last month, Jake, the president was praising Matt Whitaker as someone he knew. But now, he is changing his tune amid scrutiny of his acting attorney general pick.


BROWN (voice-over): President Trump heading to Paris and leaving behind a brewing controversy surrounding his replacement for Jeff Sessions.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't know Matt Whitaker, but he's a highly respected man.

BROWN: Today attempting to distance himself from his newly promoted acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, in the wake of controversy surrounding his pick.

TRUMP: I don't know Matt Whitaker. Matt Whitaker worked for Jeff Sessions, and he was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker.

BROWN: Whitaker was Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, a job he was appointed to last year and orchestrated by then White House counsel, Don McGahn, sources tell CNN.

And while the president may not know Whitaker well, sources say Whitaker has been to the White House dozens of times, including meetings and phone calls with Trump, who told Fox News just last month --

TRUMP: I can tell you, Matt Whitaker is a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.

BROWN: The president also a fan of Whitaker's cable news appearances where he was often critical of the Mueller investigation.

MATTHEW WHITAKER, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: The attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller but just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.

BROWN: Whitaker was a CNN commentator before his appointment to the Justice Department, writing in an op-ed last year that Mueller has come up to a red line that he is dangerously close to crossing. The comments have some Democrats calling for his recusal from the Russia investigation, saying his bias is a conflict of interest.

TRUMP: So all of the time, I'm watching many different people go on many different shows saying many different things. That doesn't mean they're unqualified.

BROWN: Whitaker's supporters counter there is no reason for him to recuse himself from the probe based solely on past comments.

TRUMP: The choice was greeted with raves initially, and still is in some circles on -- you know, it's a shame no matter who I put in, they go after him. It's very sad, I have to say.

BROWN: The president is now looking for a permanent attorney general. Topping his list, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and campaign surrogate and former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.

TRUMP: He supported me. He has good taste. I like Chris Christie, but I have not talked to him about it.


[16:20:03] BROWN: And another person who has been in Whitaker's corner was the head of the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo.

He had also been encouraging for him to take on the role of chief of staff to Sessions. And in terms of the president distancing himself from Whitaker, as one former White House official told me today, it doesn't make sense for the president to say he doesn't know someone who he just picked to run the Justice Department.


TAPPER: That's a good point. Pamela Brown at the White House, thank you so much.

Let's show this picture of this Air Force One, president Trump and his entourage just landed in France. The president is in France for a World War I centennial ceremony of the armistice. He's expected to head directly to the ambassador's residence this evening.

But let's talk more about this.

Amanda, President Trump has been wanting to get rid of the ex attorney general, Jeff Sessions, since spring of 2017 when he recused himself. And he puts in this guy. A month ago, he says he knows him. Today, he says he doesn't know him. It's all very bizarre.

But do you buy the idea he's not really familiar with this guy?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I believe that he has watched his cable news appearances. And that is what Trump thinks qualifies him for the job. When, in fact, it should disqualify him. But --

TAPPER: Why should it disqualify him?

CARPENTER: Because he's obviously impartial, he's obviously had his mind made up about the investigation. But I think we need to spend some time about why Sessions was fired. He was fired, because that will naturally open up a larger obstruction of justice case. Jeff Sessions left a big clue in the first line of his resignation letter which says, at your direction, I am resigning.

Any investigator has to ask, why did the president ask him to resign? Obviously, there's conversations there. And the president's own statements serve as a witness against the president, because he has said publicly many times, this is a witch hunt. I did not want you to recuse. Had you told me you were going to recuse, I never would have appointed you to the position, because he wanted Jeff Sessions to obstruct the case for him.

I think this is all very plain. But this is going to be part of the case later. He made it worse for himself by doing this.

TAPPER: Do you -- let me play some video of President Trump talking about Matt Whitaker and get your response.


TRUMP: I can tell you, Matt Whitaker is a great guy. I know Matt Whitaker.

I don't know Matt Whitaker. Matt Whitaker worked for Jeff Sessions and was always extremely highly thought of and still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker.


TAPPER: I'm very confused. I'm very confused.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know why he does that.

But I think Amanda is right. He knew enough about him, right? He may not know him intimately, but he knew enough about him to know the only thing he cares about. And the only thing he cares about is the Mueller investigation and what he thought about that and the fact that he thinks that it's a witch hunt.

And that he's -- and he's somebody who is clearly very loyal to Trump and is probably going to do what Trump wants him to do. Unlike Sessions, who was loyal to Trump but his own person, right? He was going to take positions --

TARA SETMAYER, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, GOP CONGRESSMAN DANA ROHRABACHER: More loyal to the Constitution, which is why he made the decision to step away. He did the right thing. And for those who didn't like Jeff Sessions, you can have your quibbles with him, but he was doing a great job for the president and his agenda and attorney general. He's probably arguably one of the most competent cabinet secretaries we had.

But yet Trump didn't like the fact that he wouldn't be his Roy Cohn. He wouldn't be his protector. He compared him to Eric Holder and said, well, Eric Holder protected Obama. Why isn't he protecting me? Not understanding the concept that Jeff Sessions' duty is to uphold the Constitution, not be a loyalist to Donald Trump.

So, it's quite obvious, to Amanda's point, that absolutely Matt Whitaker was chosen because he was a lackey, really, in the media. And he went after the Mueller investigation in terms that the president used, as well. Don Lemon even had on his show last night someone who came out and said Matt Whitaker was doing this as an audition, that he hoped that he would get noticed so he could get a job with the president and look where it's landed him.


TAPPER: It's a good strategy. Know your audience. My understanding is Matt Whitaker was -- he was chief of staff at the Justice Department under Sessions, put in there not because Sessions wanted him, but the White House wanted him there.

My understanding is that Jared and Ivanka are big fans of his and put him in there. There are a lot of people at the Justice Department who thought he was -- spy is too strong a word, but somebody there to report back to the White House about what was going on. So he really is a loyalist.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: I think were a big fan of his. I think the White House has been surprised at the amount of blowback. I think there was not a wide awareness of some of the controversial statements he's made on legal precedence on the role of the Supreme Court, on his controversial actions on behalf of a business that's been labeled a scam, has been forced to repay money to the people who had come to use services.

So I think that's been something of a surprise. And that's probably -- that may well be one reason that the president used to know him but doesn't know him any more.

[16:25:03] CARPENTER: Does the president quit taking advice on these issues from Jared? Jared reportedly was a fan of firing James Comey, which is how we got the special prosecutor. And if he's a fan of installing Whitaker as attorney general, which as I believe it will expand, the obstruction of justice case, he needs to quit asking Jared for advice on these issues and maybe Kellyanne Conway --

SETMAYER: Wasn't Scaramucci a Jared hire also?

CARPENTER: Yes, has been a disaster.

SETMAYER: And also, this is to point out, this is what happens when you don't have a White House counsel. Don McGahn is not there. And I'm sure he was probably a firewall for these kinds of things that Trump wanted to do before where he probably said, uh, no, Mr. President, that's not a great idea. We don't -- that position is vacant also. So who is advising him, other than Jared on these things?

POWERS: Also, how about Google, right? Google --


CARPENTER: They stopped at the YouTube searches.

POWERS: I mean, truly. This is very easily accessible information. It wasn't like you had to hire a private detective to dig this information up.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Coming up, but wait, there's more. A new CNN investigation into Matthew Whitaker's days as a U.S. attorney and his big embarrassment after spending two years investigating a political opponent. You will see this first on THE LEAD coming up next.

Stay with us.