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"The Guardian": Manafort Held Secret Meetings with Assange; Voters Head to Polls in Mississippi Senate Runoff Election; Undecided Races if California, New Mexico Could Produce Blue Wave. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired November 27, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks to all of you for being with us today. Jim and I will see you back here tomorrow morning.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

A new report, a previously disclosed meeting and a potential bombshell in the Russia investigation. "The Guardian" now reporting this morning that Paul Manafort, President Trump's campaign manager, met three times with WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London where Assange has been holed up for years. The meetings began in 2013, according to "The Guardian." The last one was around March 2016, shortly before Manafort joined the Trump campaign. WikiLeaks is the organization that released the Democratic e-mails stolen by Russian intelligence.

All of this coming out today as Special Counsel Robert Mueller declares Manafort's plea deal dead. Mueller says Manafort broke the deal by lying repeatedly to investigators.

A lot to dig through right now. CNN anchor and chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is following one side of the story.

Jim, lay out what "The Guardian" is reporting.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRSEPONDENT: Let's start with the basics and we'll get to the remaining questions on this. What they're saying, what they're alleging here is that Paul Manafort visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy three times in 2013, 2015, and 2016. Spring of 2016, that being the most interesting date potentially to special counsel investigators because that is as Manafort was taking on a senior role in the Trump campaign just before the convention and four months before the first tranche of stolen e- mails came out via WikiLeaks.

Just as a reminder to our viewers, why does WikiLeaks matter? Because it was the view of U.S. intelligence that WikiLeaks was the middleman, a cutout. The Russians stole, hacked the e-mails, gave it to WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks released those to the world. So, the idea of a senior Trump official meeting with the WikiLeaks founder in the Ecuadorian embassy and a few months later this comes out raises questions as to why did he go to and what was he told in that meeting?

Keep in mind what else is going on in the special counsel's investigation. You have intense interest on Roger Stone. Why Roger Stone -- a Trump adviser, connection to the president here -- because he had and even claimed at times having foreknowledge of those releases.


SCIUTTO: Tweeting, "It's about to come out," here and there, multiple times. And he since said, that was me kind of yapping, but you connect the dots, and you know Mueller has for more resources than we do and he's talked to a lot of people, is he also connecting the dots. So that's what the basis of the story is.

What are the questions? It appears to come from the Ecuadorians. The story was filed from Quito. They quote being able to be shown the Ecuadorian intelligence documents that get to some of this. What are Ecuador's motivations in this? Is this information true? These are all still questions. And as always with these stories, I always say, listen, if this is of interest, Mueller know has a lot more about it than we do.

BOLDUAN: And knew about it a long time before we knew about it.

SCIUTTO: Exactly.

BOLDUAN: Also, important, WikiLeaks denies the statement. WikiLeaks put out a statement already, saying, "Remember this day when "The Guardian" permitted a series of fabrications to totally destroy the paper's reputation." It also says, "WikiLeaks is willing to bet "The Guardian" a million dollars and its editors -- well, that's an unfortunate statement. But they say that Manafort never met Assange. That statement from WikiLeaks this morning.

Nonetheless, we're seeking out "The Guardian" reporting this morning.

Great to see you, Jim. Thank you so much.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it.

Jim's got that side of the story. Let's turn to the other side of the Manafort story developing this morning. His plea deal, which seems to be over and done with and dead as of today.

CNN's crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, has the details on this.

Shimon, this seems like a big move. What's the special prosecutor saying there?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's a really significant development when you think about it. I stood here months ago saying, having Paul Manafort pleading guilty and cooperate was such a big move by the special counsel. And yesterday, jaw-dropping. When you think about that, they have spent months, since September, since Paul Manafort pleaded guilty and decided to cooperate with him, interviewing him, questioning him, FBI agents questioning him, U.S. attorneys from the special counsel's questioned him. And what they're are saying is he repeatedly, over the course of the past few months, lied to them about information that they were questioning him on. Certainly, this means they have a lot of information that they do not need Paul Manafort for, that they had obtained on their own through intelligence and perhaps other sources. So when they went to question Paul Manafort, it appears, according to court filings, that he lied to them.

What's really interesting in all of this, this is probably not something that just happened. That they had spent months with him, that they questioned him over the course of several weeks, that they waited and waited, and continued to lie. Finally, yesterday, with the filing, saying, enough is enough, the plea deal is dead, we no longer want to work with you.

But the key I think, Kate, they still have all of this information that Paul Manafort provided them. I'm sure not everything he told them was lies. I'm sure there's stuff that they can really use in terms of intelligence reasons to try to gather information.

[11:05:17] BOLDUAN: Shimon, great to see you. Thank you so much.

PROKUPECZ: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: I really appreciate it.

Joining me now, Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's chief legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, and CNN legal analyst, Michael Zeldin, is here as well, served as special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Justice Department.

Jeffery, let's start with "The Guardian" report. What does it mean if "The Guardian" report is true?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well it's the first step of potentially proving another avenue of collusion. I say potentially because there's a lot we don't know. What is collusion? Collusion is the Trump campaign and the Russians working together to defeat Hillary Clinton. That's the claim. We know about the Trump Tower meeting, which seems to have been planned as collusion, but turns into a bust. Here, we know that the Russians used the WikiLeaks to get very damaging material out about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. What we have not seen proof of is that anyone affiliated with Trump assisted, knew in advance, helped WikiLeaks do that. Obviously, Roger Stone is under investigation --


TOOBIN: -- for doing that. Here, a new possible avenue. What does Paul Manafort know, or do, to help WikiLeaks distribute this incriminating information about --

BOLDUAN: Was it discussed, what did he ask, all of the above.

TOOBIN: These are questions raised by this report. They're not proof of anything. But, obviously, this is something that, if you want to know what went on in this campaign, you'd certainly want to know more about what happened there.


And, Michael, I mean, we don't know what they talked about, if they did meet. Is a meeting in spring of 2016, between Paul Manafort and Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, is that criminal? Does that get Manafort in trouble in and of itself?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, it doesn't. And in fact, I think one has to ask the question of whether or not anyone's dealings with WikiLeaks alone is something which could get them in trouble. Because if WikiLeaks is viewed as a First Amendment-protected news organization, then coordinating with them makes a conspiracy charge, a criminal conspiracy charge much more difficult. If it's with Guccifer 2.0 or D.C. Leaks, the hackers, according to Mueller, then a criminal conspiracy charge is more easily filed. But that doesn't undermine Jeffrey's point, which is to say that it is interesting to find out whether or not there was any agreement or participation by members of the Trump campaign with WikiLeaks to distribute this information. So, while maybe not criminal, it may be indicative of some collusive event which would be, in political terms, very bad for the president and something Congress would have to look at.

TOOBIN: Just think about how this spins out. If these meetings, could be established that they took place, Paul Manafort is working with the Trump campaign after these meetings, don't you think he would have said, oh, by the way, I was just meeting with Julian Assange, this is what Assange told me?


BOLDUAN: One more thing, with a meeting in 2016 in Trump Tower, you would think someone like Don Jr would tell his father about it.

TOOBIN: You would think. But these are all questions that need to be answered. But if these meetings really took place, it certainly raises the question of what Manafort told other people in the Trump campaign about his knowledge of WikiLeaks. How much more contact these was. These are in-person meetings. Were there e-mails between Assange and Manafort? Were their phone calls? All of these are things, if you're doing a real investigation you'd want to find out. Complicating the matter further is Manafort's status as a witness.

BOLDUAN: Right, well, that's --

TOOBIN: If he's - if they've written him off as a liar, how can they prove any of this stuff? Assange is not coming any time soon. So that, I mean, was there intelligence? Are there intercepts of this?

BOLDUAN: That's -- that's -- separately, these things are interesting. Together, they're even more interesting. The plea deal being dead between Manafort and the special counsel, Jeffrey, when you saw that on its face, what did you think?

TOOBIN: I thought, how stupid can Paul Manafort be. Because a plea deal, a cooperation agreement is a chance to reduce a very long sentence he was facing.


[11:10:00] TOOBIN: That was his ticket out to spend some time out of prison. That deal is now torn up. He's going to get a very long sentence, unless he gets a pardon. Obviously the question of the pardon hangs over this. We don't know what his chance are. But certainly, he threw away a very big opportunity.

BOLDUAN: Does this complicate things for Paul Manafort? Does this complicate things also for the special counsel, Michael? As Jeffrey says, if they now call him a liar, is the information that they've gotten from him, it useless? Is it tainted, in some way?

ZELDIN: Well, it depends upon that which he lied about. You know, Gates lied as well. Remember, he was required to plead guilty as part of his settlement with Mueller to one count of lying during the interview process. But I expect that Gates is still a helpful witness to Mueller. So, Manafort could be a helpful witness to Mueller, even though he failed to corroborate what -- it looks to me they were looking for Manafort to offer corroborative testimony of evidence they had and he couldn't or wouldn't do it. Mueller probably still has that evidence. And if Manafort is unable to corroborate it, then fine, Mueller still has the evidence. So it's not a death blow by any means to Mueller's prosecution.


TOOBIN: It's not a death blow. But I do think it's good news for Donald Trump that Paul Manafort turns out not to be the super great witness who will tie Trump and his circle to illegal activities. The fact that Manafort is at least partially discredited is, I think, at least, in part, good news for Trump.

BOLDUAN: That's like the strangest double negative.


TOOBIN: It is. I'm sorry.

TOOBIN: No, I want to be clear.


BOLDUAN: I know what you're saying, it seems counterintuitive. Because he's discredited, it's good.

TOOBIN: It's good for Trump, yes.


TOOBIN: Yes. Because if he were, you know, the super great believable witness telling them all sorts of terrible things, that would be the worst scenario.


TOOBIN: It's better for Trump that he's unbelievable and not incriminating.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask this.

Michael, hold on one second.

Let me ask you this as well, this was just handed to me. Dana Bash is reporting, spoke to Rudy Giuliani, obviously one of the attorneys for President Trump in these matters. And Giuliani says he was aware that Paul Manafort was running into problems with Robert Mueller. In a conversation with Dana, he was asked did they -- did they, meaning Manafort's team, tell you they're running into problems with Mueller. I did know they were running into problems. Is that surprising?


TOOBIN: No. That's totally proper that defense attorneys talk to each other about that sort of thing. You know, they're both dealing with Mueller in different ways. Different attorneys try to get intelligence about what's going on. So, it's not surprising. It's not all in improper for Giuliani to know that.

BOLDUAN: Michael, I cut you off. Go ahead.

ZELDIN: I was going to say, as to that last point, it's important for the Trump legal team to know this before they submitted their final written answers because they don't want to answer questions in a way that's inconsistent with the way Manafort is telling Mueller. But the fact that Manafort may be discredited as a witness does cut both ways. That is, if Manafort was somehow going to be now put forward by the Trump team as being credible as to no collusion, then his credibility is undermined in that respect. In many respects, all parties who are trying to advocate a point of view lose by Manafort's, you know, sort of behavior.

BOLDUAN: It does now raise this theory and question once again of, was there a pardon in the offing? Let's leave that for tomorrow.

Great to see you, Jeffrey.

Great to see you, Michael.

Thank you very much.

Coming up next for us, Mississippi, you are on the clock, my friends. History on the ballot there on the runoff Senate race. But is this election also about race? Voters are voting right now. We'll take you there.

Plus, votes are still being counted elsewhere. In California, a Democrat is in the lead for a Republican-held House seat. Could a 40- House pickup be in reach for House Democrats today? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:18:34] BOLDUAN: Election Day was three weeks ago, but this was the election that just doesn't quit. Right now, voters are going to the polls in Mississippi. Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is trying to fend off Democrat Mike Espy in a tight runoff for the state's Senate seat. A short time ago, Espy had this to say about what his victory would mean.


MIKE ESPY, (D), MISSISSIPPI SENATE CANDIDATE: This is going to be significant either way. It's going to be significant for Mississippi. I think for the people of Mississippi if I'm blessed to be elected tonight, I think it's going to represent a sea change and determination of where we're going, as we make a right turn, as we move toward the third decade into the 21st century. You see, for Mississippi we just seem to be mired. You know, we still seem to be last on all of the good lists and at the top of all of the bad lists.


BOLDUAN: President Trump not taking anything for granted there, trying not to, making two campaign stops in Mississippi yesterday for Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Joining me right now is someone who spent the last two decades covering Mississippi politics, senior capitol reporter for "Mississippi Today," Bobby Harrison.

Bobby, thank you for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Big day in Mississippi. Voters are heading to the polls. If Hyde-Smith wins, is it because the president campaigned for her yesterday?

[11:20:05] HARRISON: Well, that doesn't hurt. I mean, he made two stops. I was in Tupelo, that was his first stop. There was probably 5,000 people. He went from northeast of Mississippi, home of Elvis Presley, over to Biloxi where he spoke at the Biloxi coliseum. There was a lot of energy there.

And the race is closer than expected. And if that's the case, a lot of that is because of the comments that have come out that Cindy Hyde- Smith has made on the campaign trail in recent weeks. We just have to see what happens today. It's going to be interesting.

BOLDUAN: That's for sure. I want to get to the comments in just a second. Some of the facts about the state of the race. It's a Senate runoff. Taking place days after Thanksgiving, weeks after Election Day. It's in a state that we're talking about that Trump won by 18 points but also 48 percent of the electorate is African-American. What does this add up to? HARRISON: That's the key. There are so many unknowns for the race.

First of all, we've never had a runoff like this, four days after Thanksgiving, for a U.S. Senate seat. And second of all, the African- American turnout is close to 40 percent. About 37 percent, 38 percent is their share of electorate. So if African-Americans turn out in large numbers, larger than is normal for a midterm, you know, we could see lightning in the bottle, and actually lightning in the bottle to win this thing. And we just don't know what's going to happen until we see the turnout.

BOLDUAN: That is the magic of Election Day. There's only one poll that matters, that's Election Day.


BOLDUAN: Hyde-Smith, as you mentioned, she's been embroiled in these racially charged comments. She's on tape talking about attending a public hanging with the supporters. She later apologized, saying that was an exaggerated expression. The president was asked about this statement in particular when on the ground there. Let me play what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I know her. I know her. I know she apologized. And she misspoke. But I will tell you this, I've known her for a period of time as a Senator. She's been an excellent Senator. She's done a great job.


BOLDUAN: Bobby, is this race about race?

HARRISON: Yes. Obviously, it always is a little bit in Mississippi. You know, we have the most racially polarized electorate in the nation, I think. More than 90 percent of African-Americans only vote for the Democratic candidate and about 90 percent of the white Mississippians vote for the Republican candidate in most national elections. So if that happens in this election, it's going to be hard for Espy to win. But there's a sense that he's trying to tap into -- a lot of people in Mississippi are trying to move past the stereotypes about the state. And the election of him would help to do that. As I said, we just hope to see if that plays out later on tonight.

BOLDUAN: If Espy wins -- just from your years of covering Mississippi politics, if Espy would win, it because he's a strong candidate, or it because Hyde-Smith is a weak one?

HARRISON: A little bit of both. You know, we shouldn't discount Mike Espy. As you probably talked about on some of your shows, he's a historic figure in Mississippi politics. He was the first African- American from Mississippi elected to Congress in 1986. He was a cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration. You know, we don't have any cabinet secretaries from Mississippi. There's a lot of historical significance to Mike Espy. But he's been out of politics for a while. He was a cabinet secretary. And in the '90s served three terms in the U.S. Congress. So, he's been out of politics for a while. It took him a while to get his feet on the ground and get him moving but I think he has been strong. So I think, to answer your question, it's a combination of the comments that she's made and Espy putting his head down and working hard.

BOLDUAN: Bobby, it's great to meet you. Thank you so much for coming in. We'll see what happens today.

HARRISON: OK. OK. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thanks so much.

Coming up -- it's going to be fascinating. See how it plays out tonight. Stay with CNN for that.

[11:24:24] Up next, no matter what happens with that Senate seat, are Democrats on their way to a 40-seat pickup in the House of Representatives. Three weeks after the election, votes are still being counted in California today.


BOLDUAN: They are still counting votes out west. One race too close to call in California. Another undecided in New Mexico right now. Both seats held by Republicans. Both with a Democrat in the lead right now. So, what does this mean for the Democrat blue wave?

CNN senior politics writer and analyst, Harry Enten, is tracking all this.

Harry, take is through the race that everyone is watching in California.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICS WRITER & ANALYST: It's California 21st district race. The was a race that, on election night, David Valadao, the Republican incumbent was well ahead of T.J. Cox. But as vote-by-mails were counted, Cox has jumped into the lead. And based upon the ballots that are still outstanding, I think it's more than likely he's going to win.

Let's put this in context in California. And that is, there were seven districts that voted for a GOP representative in 2017 but also voted for Hillary Clinton. In all seven of those districts, the Democrat is ahead or we have projected that Democrat is going to win.