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CNN NEWSROOM

Nine Dead, 35 Missing as Fires Spread on Both Ends of California; Noon Deadline for Decision on Florida Recount; Backlash over President Trump's Pick for Acting Attorney General; Trump, Macron Gloss over Differences after Rough Start; WSJ: Trump Had Central Role in Payments to Porn Star and Playboy Model; White House Planned to Replace Sessions with Whitaker for Months. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired November 10, 2018 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:59:54] CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you so much for spending time with us. We hope you make good memories today.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: CNN NEWSROOM continues now with our colleague, Fredricka Whitfield.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks so much. Good to see you -- guys.

PAUL: You, too.

BLACKWELL: There you go.

WHITFIELD: All right. So it is 11:00 on the East Coast.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. NEWSROOM starts right now.

Right now, a trio of wildfires scorching their way across California claiming lives, property, and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes as fast as they can.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was crazy. People driving like maniacs to get out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just can't believe it. It really was like a war zone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I could have mounted (ph) up and had everything I needed b But I didn't have time. This is hard stuff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: In northern California at least nine people have died, 35 others are missing, and nearly 6,500 buildings and homes have been torched making the Camp Fire -- that's what it is called -- one of the deadliest, most destructive in state history.

The town of Paradise has been hit the hardest. Officials say up to 90 percent of the homes were destroyed there. Meantime, two other fires are wreaking havoc in the Los Angeles area, south of that first fire we mentioned. The entire town -- the entire town of Malibu, home to some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities is almost completely abandoned.

We have correspondents standing by in two areas seeing the most damage from these fires right now. Dan Simon is in Paradise, in northern California where the flames have consumed nearly an entire community. Dan -- what is the latest?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well hi -- Fred.

The level and scale of destruction is unlike anything we've ever seen in the state of California. Where we are right here, this kind of gives you an idea of the kinds of things we're seeing. You can see these cars that have just been, you know, discarded here.

Take a look at this school bus. I almost makes you wonder if the driver realized that he was in danger and just left the school bus right here. Keep in mind, this fire broke out at 6:00 in the morning.

Now, as you go through town, it is just unbelievable in terms of what you see. Pretty much every home you come across is gone. You see all these businesses that are burned to the ground; schools, churches, retirement centers -- you name it. We talked to police officers and firefighters and everyone is basically saying they've never seen anything like this.

Now, in terms of the containment number, right now it is at 20 percent. And the fire does not seem to be threatening any more buildings. And there's a reason for that. That's because there's relay nothing left for fire to destroy in the town of Paradise.

Now they are concerned about the nearby community of Chico, California. Firefighters did set up containment lines and Chico appears to be safe.

And in terms of the weather, right now, things are calm, but there is a concern about tonight when there's going to be another red flag warning and the winds kick up again. So of course, fire crews want to continue to build more containment lines and begin to, you know, get the upper hand on this blaze -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dan -- horrible situation also very bad south of you.

Kaylee Hartung is in Malibu. So Kaylee -- you know, these flames are showing no signs of slowing down. What's happening there?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Woolsey Fire stands at zero percent containment. And since this fire broke out midday Thursday, L.A. County and Ventura County fire strike teams and air teams have been hard at work around the clock.

You know, we started our day in the Oak Park area around some of the first homes to be devastated by this fire. We moved south to the town of Calabasas. There we could see active flames in the hillsides.

We weren't there for too long before an air drop came from one of those choppers from the L.A. County fire department. And it was unbelievable how accurately and how quickly they were able to attack that.

We made our way through the Santa Monica mountains, the haze and the smog so thick, that stench of the smoke so pungent. We were able to do that safely, make our way down here to Malibu.

This structure behind me one of the few we have seen still actively burning. We just heard the roof come off and its I think first chunk of the house moments ago, more of it falling behind me just a second ago.

Now here in Malibu we have seen so many pictures and videos come through on social media from celebrities who we all know who live in this area. Lady Gaga posting this morning about the devastation and the activity she has seen from this fire.

Again, zero percent containment for the Woolsey Fire. This -- I should point out, this structure burning behind me is on the oceanside of the Pacific Coast Highway. The Pacific Coast Highway running right in front of me. This fire so powerful, able to jump that and head all the way out towards the ocean.

WHITFIELD: All right. Kaylee Hartung, some very tense moments there.

Among the many celebrities living there, Cher has been tweeting earlier saying, you know, she has been living there since the 70s, can't imagine, you know, that her home might be engulfed by flames.

[11:05:02] And even, you know, Will Smith -- actor Will Smith had posted how actively he and his family were trying to elevate, move to higher ground. Very tense moments for so many people living there.

Among them Laura Rosenthal. She is a councilwoman and former mayor of Malibu. Council member Rosenthal -- so glad you could be with us. What have these last few hours been like for you?

LAURA ROSENTHAL, MALIBU COUNCILWOMAN (via telephone): Good morning. It has been a very, very difficult 24 hours for the whole community of Malibu.

As you know we were all given the evacuation notice yesterday morning. A lot of people tried to leave in the morning. It was a nightmare getting out. Five to six hours for what's normally a 45-minute drive.

We're still assessing the damage this morning. The latest that I've been told, it's still zero percent containment. We have no assessment yet on the number of homes lost. Fires are still burning. I don't know about my home. I do know we have a number of friends, close friends that do know they've lost their home.

And then we're working on a county recovery effort starting with the initial damage. They're looking at that now. And then we're working with our cities, surrounding cities to find a regional local assistance center.

They are reporting on two deaths. The sheriffs are investigating them. They weren't in the city of Malibu proper but just outside Malibu on Mulholland Drive.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: So Councilwoman -- talk to me about how difficult it is, you know, to get to people, to assess. I mean I've spent a little time in Malibu. And you can be, you know, in remote sections in the foothills there where homes, you know, have lots of acreage. You know, folks have horses. And then you can also be on the opposite side of the Pacific Coast Highway and be right there, you know, along the coastline.

So everyone's journey is very different when it comes down to evacuations. How do you check on one another, assist one another in a circumstance like this?

ROSENTHAL: Sure. You know, Malibu is -- in its heart we're a small town so we really look out for our neighbors. And we're used to evacuating, we're used to dealing with fire.

And so obviously it is a lot easier to get to safe areas when you're closer to the beach. And up the canyons people know how to evacuate, what to do. I had one friend who stayed pretty late, later than I was comfortable with up one of the canyons, was able to get down.

You know, the goal is to get people that are in difficult to reach areas to leave earlier but many people want to stay and try to save their houses.

We lost power in most of Malibu very early yesterday, so it's difficult to get information. Where I lived, I had a bird's eye view of many different areas, a big area where our high school actually is. And I just watched the whole area burn with many homes lost.

Firefighters were pulled to different areas. We did see some planes dropping water and fire retardant, but it was very, very scary to really get --

WHITFIELD: OH, I hope I didn't lose you. I know this is very urgent and very frightening. Councilwoman -- are you still with me?

All right. We've lost that signal.

And this is how perilous and difficult circumstances are there in the Malibu area and in the overall region there in southern California as firefighters are trying to battle these blazes here in southern California as well as northern California.

Folks are trying to get the evacuations under way, reach out to loved ones, friends. Lots of urgency. Extremely frightening situation there. And we're seeing some of the images right now.

We'll continue to try to reach out to the councilwoman and, of course, you know, our deepest and heartfelt thoughts are with everyone there in the fire zone regions.

Meantime, we could soon know if two of Florida's tightest races this midterm season will end up in a recount. Counties in the state have until noon to submit their returns to the secretary of state.

The race for governor and U.S. Senate are still too close to call. Florida law requires a recount if candidates are within a half percentage point of each other and that's currently the case in both races.

[11:10:04] CNN's Jessica Dean is in Lauder Hill. So Jessica -- give us more details about this deadline and how people have turned out, you know, to express their sentiment about the ongoing counting and the threat of a potential recount in these two pivotal races.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well good morning to you -- Fredricka. That's right.

We're here in Broward County, outside the supervisor of elections office. You can hear the protesters probably. They're here to my left.

We have people on both sides who have come out here to express their opinion. It has continued to grow throughout the morning, getting to the loudest point really in the last ten minutes or so.

Let's zoom out and give you a big picture of what's going on here in Florida for just a moment.

As you mentioned at noon, that's going to be the deadline for all counties with in Florida to get their unofficial results in to the secretary of state office. They will then begin to go through all of them, count them, and if any of those races stay within that half percentage-point margin, that's going to trigger an automatic recount. That's going to be -- that's going to be a machine recount. So that's what we're looking toward.

In the meantime, we're here outside the Broward County Supervisor's office as I said. And the reason you're seeing protesters here, this has become a hot spot.

The Rick Scott campaign has sued this particular supervisor Brenda Snipes -- that is who they are talking about. You'll hear a lot of them yelling her name. We hear chants of lock her up. The other side chanting every vote counts. A lot of them wanting to get inside.

Snipes was scheduled to go -- Snipes was scheduled to meet with Rick Scott's lawyers this morning. So that is what is going on here.

But again, as you're looking at these protesters, listen, there's a lot of emotion on both sides here. And we have heard that throughout the day. We saw protesters here yesterday, screaming chants about lock her up in relation to Brenda Snipes.

We're still waiting to get to the unofficial count here in Broward County. We're also waiting to get the unofficial count out of Palm Beach County. Those are the two counties that the Rick Scott campaign has sued.

Also, Bill Nelson's campaign has sued the secretary of state of Florida. So a lot of moving parts here. And as you can tell by looking at these images live right now outside of the Broward County Supervisor's office, a lot of emotion on both sides. A lot of people showing up to make their voice heard here.

And may I mention, it is Florida. It is hot outside. People are drinking a lot of water. It is just -- it's a very potent situation out here.

So we can expect to continue to see those protesters today. They were here all throughout the day yesterday and into the evening.

And again, we're waiting right now. It's is about 11:15. We've got about 45 minutes until that deadline. And that's when they will begin to take a look at all those votes and then we'll know if officially we are headed for a recount here in Florida -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jessica Dean -- we'll check back with you. Clearly a lot of folks have turned out on both sides, some who are upset about the fact that there aren't, you know, definitive results as yet and others who are saying let the process go on. Let all of these counties then present their numbers to the secretary of state by noon and then see what happens after that.

All right next, scrutiny over President Trump's pick for acting U.S. attorney general. Is he qualified for the job or not? And after all the backlash, where exactly does the President stand?

[11:13:42] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: The backlash over the President's choice for acting attorney general is growing. The President picked Matt Whitaker for the position after he fired Jeff Sessions. Whitaker has come under scrutiny for his comments criticizing the special counsel's Russia investigation, among other things.

On Friday, the President defended Whitaker and at the same time tried to distance himself from his acting justice chief. The President claimed that he doesn't know Whitaker despite an interview a month ago where the President bragged about how well he knew Whitaker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, Matt Whitaker, I don't know Matt Whitaker. Matthew Whitaker works for Jeff Sessions. I didn't speak to Matt Whitaker about it. I don't know Matt Whitaker.

But I can tell you, Matthew Whitaker is a great guy. I mean I know Matthew Whitaker.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: All right. So with me now is David Swerdlick, who is a CNN political commentator and an assistant editor at the "Washington Post". Also with me is Michael Zeldin, who is a CNN legal analyst and a former federal prosecutor. Good to see both of you.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Hey -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. So David -- you first. So what about these contradictory, you know, comments coming from the President? Is this essentially a bull horn, you know, to say that this job may be really short as the interim or acting attorney general by distancing himself now from even knowing Whitaker?

SWERDLICK: Good morning -- Fred.

I'm not sure how to predict how long Whitaker will be in this role but clearly there's an unease if you just watched the President in that clip that you just played answering that question.

It really doesn't matter as much politically how well personally- acquainted the President is with Matthew Whitaker. What matters is that, you know, Matthew Whitaker is a known political quantity. He was a Republican-appointed U.S. attorney. He ran in a U.S. Senate primary, Republican primary for Senate and lost. He has made many comments on CNN's air questioning the special counsel's investigation.

But once you put him in that role as acting attorney general, then the question becomes can he be an honest broker. And then there are some other questions which I will defer to Michael about whether he's even properly been placed in that role.

[11:20:01] And that I think is why you see the President showing some discomfort with the question.

WHITFIELD: And so Michael -- you know, Whitaker, you know, part of his duty as being the, you know, acting AG is that he would have oversight over this Mueller investigation, aside from the fact that he has already been very outspoken about it, but also reportedly the deputy AG Rosenstein will still be in the mix.

However, when in August of 2017 Whitaker was on many people's show, including -- I had an opportunity to interview him. He spoke quite prolifically about what he thought limitations should be for the Mueller probe. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: My understanding of the scope is that it is limited. And this is one of the discussions I've been having with lots of people. And in fact, I'm writing an editorial piece that should be up on CNN.com soon about that there is a red line. There is a very specific scope to this investigation. And anything that is outside of Russian coordination or the 2016 campaign would be outside the scope of that investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: So then Michael, you know, does it show -- just listening to his words -- some sort of prejudice over this Mueller investigation and is that merit for recusing himself, similar to how Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself because of his involvement in the campaign?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. Under the federal recusal guidelines it says that essentially if you have an appearance of conflict or an actual conflict such as to give question to the world at large, whether you're an honest broker, you should be recused. You should step aside or you should voluntarily recuse yourself.

I think those regulations are the same regulations that Jeff Sessions looked at and was counselled by the professional responsibility personnel in Justice and agreed that he should step aside, apply equally in force to Matthew Whitaker and that he should step aside voluntarily because of a predisposition to a particular outcome of a case that he doesn't know the facts of yet.

WHITFIELD: So while there's a lot of criticism of Whitaker and how he has, you know, revealed his thoughts about the Mueller probe, David -- you know, the acting AG Rosenstein or I'm sorry -- the deputy AG Rosenstein is now also saying, you know, or commending Whitaker having known him and saying that he is the right guy for the job. This is Rosenstein.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think he's a superb choice for attorney general. He certainly understands the work and priorities in terms of his department. And I think he's going to do a superb job as attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: So this only adds to the confusion -- David.

SWERDLICK: Right -- Fred. So look, I'm going to take Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein at his word there that he thinks highly of Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. And let's face it, if this guy is going to be his boss for however short of a time period, it probably doesn't behoove him to start a war of words with him.

That said, let's recall that Rosenstein got caught up in the mix not in a good way when FBI director Jim Comey was fired in 2017. He was one of the authors, or was the author of the memo justifying it that, you know, the justification or the reasoning behind it was a little bit questionable. Maybe he didn't realize that the President was dead set at that time on pushing ahead with getting rid of Comey.

Now you have to wonder, though, if he is not privately asking himself why he as the number two guy at the Department of Justice is not put in the position of acting attorney general. Is it because, and I'm asking the question here, is it because President Trump likes the way Whitaker would handle the Mueller investigation better than the way he likes the way either Attorney General Sessions did by recusing himself or Rosenstein did in managing it.

WHITFIELD: And then Michael -- adding to the chorus of those voices who say that, you know, Whitaker isn't even qualified and you know, begin with the fact that he was not, you know, confirmed by the Senate. George Conway, who's the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote in the "New York Times" this.

"Mr. Trump's installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It is illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does or tries to do in that position is invalid." Is he right?

ZELDIN: Well, it is not settled. I think that the piece that Conway and Neal Katyal wrote is compelling from the standpoint of the nature of the position that Whitaker has been appointed to, that in that case he should be a Senate-confirmed person to step in as an acting AG.

The other thing is, of course, as David mentioned there is a specific statute in the U.S. Code, a Senate-passed criminal code statute. And it says that there is an order of succession.

[11:24:59] And that order of succession is that when the AG steps down, the deputy AG takes his place. There is no reason in this case why that should have been bypassed. And this notion that the --

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: So who could challenge that the President circumvented that?

ZELDIN: Well, that's a very good question -- Fred. It is not clear how this gets joined (ph). There has been litigation like this in the National Labor Relations Board and with the firing/resignation of the Veterans secretary. It could go to federal court.

I'm not sure whether Mueller would have standing to bring a lawsuit if Whitaker tried in any way to decapitate his investigation. But that all is to be played out depending on how Whitaker acts in his role.

We have this -- to David's point -- we have to see how acting AG Whitaker works as opposed to private sector Whitaker.

WHITFIELD: All fascinating. All right.

SWERDLICK: Fred -- can I make just one quick point?

WHITFIELD: Yes. Real quick, go ahead.

SWERDLICK: Just to follow-up on what Michael said -- I know you have to go.

Look, the whole reason you have these cabinet level positions senate- confirmed is so that it's not solely up to the discretion of the chief executive, in this case, President Trump especially in a case where the Justice Department special counsel, Robert Mueller, who basically serves as a U.S. attorney, is investigating.

WHITFIELD: David Swerdlick, Michael Zeldin -- it's good to hear from you both. Thanks so much. >

SWERDLICK: Thanks. WHITFIELD: All right. He left the U.S. political turmoil at home, but then stirred up global political tensions abroad. President Trump blasting the French president before he even got off Air Force One.

[11:26:31] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Welcome back.

President Trump is in Paris right now trying to leave behind the turmoil in Washington since the midterms. A short time ago, he and the First Lady left Elysees palace after lunch with their French counterparts. President Trump and President Emmanuel Macron held talks earlier today after Trump blasted Macron on Twitter over NATO payments. World leaders are in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is live for us in Paris. So Kaitlan -- apparently the tweet was the result of what Macron's spokesperson says is a, I'm quoting now, "misunderstanding"?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And this is something that Macron said several days ago, but President Trump waited until he was on French soil to tweet about it.

Air Force One had landed here in France last night but President Trump had not even gotten off the plane yet when he sent this tweet criticizing the French president for some remarks he made during an interview regarding the President's position to withdraw from the INF treaty, that nuclear arms pact that President Ronald Reagan signed with Russia in the 1980s.

He said that in response to that he believed Europe was the victim and their security was at stake and they needed to form a true European army.

Then President Trump sent out this tweet blasting him for it saying it was a very insulting remark and then bringing up saying that Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO which the U.S. subsidizes greatly, the President added, before it focuses on making its army more robust.

So President Trump essentially setting the stage for conflict here in Paris. He went to the ambassador's residence where he's staying last night. But then today they had that one on one meeting. And Fred -- you could see right there, though they use the words that typically world leaders use in their meetings, their body language betrayed them. And it showed the growing tension between the two of them.

Typically these two leaders are chummy, back-slapping, laughing as they are meeting. President Trump once called Macron "perfect" in the Oval Office. But today there was none of that.

Instead there was very little eye contact, very little -- any kind of affection or any kind of warmth between these two leaders which gives way to just show what exactly the tension is between of them. And now they are spending the day together. They were together

earlier today. And President Trump is back at his hotel right now after the White House cancelled a scheduled trip to a cemetery where Americans who were killed in World War I are buried because of the weather here in Paris.

But Fred -- they will be back together tonight for a dinner that the French president and his wife are hosting.

WHITFIELD: And Kaitlan, quickly, the cancellation of the President not going to that location, was it because of this chilliness between them now or something else?

COLLINS: No, they said it was because of the weather here in Paris. So where he was going, the cemetery is about two hours -- 90 minutes to two hours outside of Paris. And President Trump was scheduled to take a helicopter.

We've had some bad weather here in Paris and they said they weren't going to be able to go. They didn't explain why they couldn't make this trip via a car. But instead, President Trump has roughly a seven-hour block where he's been back at the ambassador's residence where he is staying, which has opened him up to some criticism but there could be some logistical reasons why President Trump did not make that trip today.

WHITFIELD: All right. Kaitlan Collins in Paris -- thanks so much.

All right. Still ahead.

The "Wall Street Journal" says then-candidate Donald Trump was involved in nearly every step of paying hush money to two women he allegedly had affairs with. But the President says he had no idea of the payoff. So who is telling the truth?

[11:34:25] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: A report in the "Wall Street Journal" says then-candidate Donald Trump was closely involved in the payment of hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during the 2016 campaign.

Here now is CNN's MJ Lee.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MJ LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): New details implicating the President in two infamous hush payments. The "Wall Street Journal" reporting that during the 2016 campaign Donald Trump closely coordinated with American Media Inc. chairman David Pecker to silence two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

Federal prosecutors, according to the "Journal", had enough evidence to outline Trump's role without naming him in an 80-page draft indictment of Michael Cohen. Trump reportedly asked Pecker to kill a story involving Playboy model Karen McDougal. She claims to have had a long running affair with Trump.

KAREN MCDOUGAL, FORMER PLAYBOY MODEL: If he weren't married, I wouldn't have any regrets because he treated me very kind and very respectful. As I told you, it was a good relationship while it happened.

[11:39:59] Now, had I known at the time there were supposedly all these other women, no, I wouldn't have been in a relationship.

LEE: Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements, according to the Journal. He directed deals and phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer Michael Cohen and others.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: I'm obviously very loyal and very dedicated to Mr. Trump.

LEE: Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts in August, including two counts of campaign finance violations. Cohen told the court that it was at Trump's direction that he facilitated the secret payments. Prosecutors said Cohen coordinated with one or more members of the campaign.

And there's this secret recording obtained by CNN in July --

COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David. So I'm going to do that right away. I have actually come up and I've -- I have spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with funding.

Yes. And it's all the stuff. All the stuff because, you know, you never know where that company, you never know what he --

TRUMP: He maybe gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct. So I'm all over that. And I spoke to Allen about it. When it comes time for the financing which will be --

TRUMP: What planning (ph)?

COHEN: We'll have to pay.

TRUMP: In cash?

COHEN: No, no, no, no, no, no.

LEE: -- showing Cohen and Trump discussing a payment to McDougal.

CNN has reported that Trump was also personally involved in silencing Daniels who also claims to have had a sexual encounter with Trump.

STORMY DANIELS, ADULT FILM ACTRESS: My attorney and I are committed to making sure that everyone finds out the truth and the facts of what happened. And I give my word that we will not rest until that happens.

LEE: The new details of Trump's intimate involvement clashing with previous denials from the President and the White House.

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

TRUMP: No.

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

TRUMP: You'll have to ask Michael Cohen.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President has denied these allegations. And I don't have anything else further to add on that front.

LEE (on camera): A source close to Cohen tells CNN that Cohen was just doing his job in protecting his client. Meanwhile, Stormy Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti reacted that all of this just further vindication that he and his client were right. All of this happening as Cohen is meeting with various investigators and awaits his sentencing in December.

MJ Lee, CNN -- New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: All right.

Let's talk more about this with Greg Brower. He is a former U.S. attorney. And Margaret Talev is the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News. Good to see you both.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Hi -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: So we heard in that report that U.S., you know, prosecutors, you know, have accumulated evidence of Trump's role without naming him in the Cohen indictment.

So, you know, Greg -- what kind of potential legal road do you see for the President? Yes, we have, you know, we've heard it time and time again that you can't indict a sitting president but we are talking about alleged activity before he was president. Does it matter? Does it make a difference in that --

(CROSSTALK)

GREG BROWER, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Right. Right. Good morning -- Fred.

Yes. No big surprise here. I think this confirms what most observers thought when the story first broke several months ago. I don't think anyone really believed that the President had nothing to do with this or knew nothing about it.

This pattern of conduct, if true, seems to be unseemly at the very least, probably unethical. And the big question, of course, that you posed is was it illegal. That remains to be seen, but it could quite possibly implicate campaign -- federal campaign finance law violations.

To the question of whether a sitting president can be indicted, you know, that is a matter of policy within the Department of Justice. It is not a hard and fast rule and certainly not a federal statute. So we'll have to see what facts actually come out and then what DOJ decides to do about it, if in fact they believe federal law was violated.

WHITFIELD: And, of course, now there's an acting, you know, AG which could, you know, make it even that much more complicated -- Margaret.

TALEV: Yes. I mean I think you both touched exactly on what's important to keep an eye on here is that there are some timelines and some pivotal news events to put in context with this.

One is Michael Cohen's sentencing hearing December 12th. The other is the takeover of the House by the Democratic Party, and in January we'll see -- I know this will shock everyone -- a lot of new investigations. This will certainly probably come up as a new line of questioning or a fresh outline of questioning.

And then, of course, there's the search for a new attorney general and the President's acting attorney general who already is kind of the subject of a lot of speculation about whether he is going to be providing a lot of political cover for President Trump or whether he is an honest broker.

[11:44:59] And this falls squarely kind of into the middle of all of these debates as we move forward now if in fact there is a chance that this would constitute an actual violation of election law. Is that something that this Justice Department now would pursue.

WHITFIELD: And so Greg -- you know, this really is a convergence of so many different investigations, you know. You've got the Mueller probe. You've got the southern district, you know, of New York, you know, probe. And then potentially this Federal Elections, you know, Commission violation.

But as far as we know, the President has not yet, you know, answered to any written questions coming from the Mueller investigation. Might this kind of questioning, line of questioning, be intertwined in the Russia probe since, you know, Cohen, you know, was a confidant, was, you know, a fixer, was his attorney?

BROWER: It very well could be. But I think based upon what we know so far about these apparent allegations and the evidence that DOJ has apparently developed so far, this would seem to be outside the confines of the Mueller investigation and would likely be handled by a DOJ outside of the special counsel team.

But the point that was raised earlier is also an important one. With the majority of the House of Representatives flipping to Democratic control, even if DOJ decides that whatever the evidence is it cannot indict the President for a violation of federal law the House, the new House majority will likely see that as a potential ground for impeachment proceedings.

And so there's a lot to come here. This will be very interesting to watch.

WHITFIELD: And largely based on the allegations of the hush money, the willingness for the then, you know, the candidate to have participated in the hush money so as to allegedly protect, you know, his reputation.

TALEV: Yes.

BROWER: That's right.

TALEV: And this also -- yes.

BROWER: That's right. I think what --

WHITFIELD: Go ahead -- Greg.

BROWER: I was just going to say, I think what House Democrats -- what House Democrats will likely focus on or be inclined to focus on is that if it is clear that the President has lied about this, even if not under oath, but repeatedly to the media and to the American people, I think there will be at least some subset of House members who will see that that constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors under the constitution and impeachment proceedings would be in order.

But I'm getting a little ahead of where we are right now. That's certainly possible but more facts will have to come out.

WHITFIELD: Margaret?

TALEV: Even if it never gets to that point, it won't stop the Democrats who will be in charge of that oversight from having the hearings and asking the questions.

What's not clear -- certainly this is a bombshell report, but what's not clear is how much of this Mr. Mueller's team or prosecutors in New York district already know. They may very well have already spoken to many of the same sources or heard much of the same information. Putting it in the public though creates a political -- a political track and a political imperative for discussions alongside the ongoing investigation.

WHITFIELD: All right. We'll leave it there for now. Margaret Talev, Greg Brower -- thanks to you both. We appreciate it.

TALEV: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: And we'll be right back.

[11:48:14] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. When things were particularly bad between President Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General's chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, would attend White House meetings in his place. But Sessions apparently did not know that Whitaker at the same time was angling for a promotion.

Here's CNN's Evan Perez.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

EVAN PEREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Matt Whitaker's rise to the top job at the Justice Department has been in the works for months. His boss, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, only came to realize this very recently.

CNN has learned new details of some of the behind the scenes drama that took place at the Justice Department on Wednesday after White House chief of staff John Kelly called Sessions to ask for his resignation. Top Justice Department officials including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein huddled with Sessions to try to find a way to delay the resignation.

Rosenstein was the highest ranking official overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. That is, until Whitaker took over as acting attorney general on Wednesday.

Whitaker was huddling with his own aides on Wednesday, strategizing his plans to take over. Sources tell us that at least one official raised questions to Sessions about whether Whitaker's appointment is constitutional since he's not Senate-confirmed.

In the end, President Trump rejected Sessions' request to remain in office for a few more days and Sessions resigned. In an e-mail Friday to Justice Department employees, Whitaker said, quote, "I am committed to leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards that upholds the rule of law and seeks justice for all Americans."

Sources tell us that in recent months, Whitaker was frequently at the White House, sometimes attending meetings on behalf of his boss. That's because of the rocky relationship between Sessions and the President. A source close to Sessions says that the former attorney general only recently realized that Whitaker was having his own conversations with the White House to get one of the top jobs at the Justice Department.

Evan Perez, CNN -- Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: And this quick programming note. In this week's final episode of "PARTS UNKNOWN", we see Anthony Bourdain's personal journey through a formerly bohemian New York neighborhood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[11:55:11] ANTHONY BOURDAIN, FORMER CNN HOST: In the New York City of the 70s, nearly bankrupt, riddled with corruption the Lower East Side, particularly Alphabet City, was left to fend for itself. Huge swaths of it abandoned, ruined or simply empty.

Much of it became an open air supermarket for drugs. Whole blocks taken over by organized drug gangs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Wow. Watch "ANTHONY BOURDAIN PARTS UNKNOWN" Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only on CNN.

[11:55:51] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)