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Special Counsel Says Michael Cohen is Telling Truth, Trump Says He's Lying. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 29, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm Kate Baldwin.

Quite a morning this has been. The essential question this morning once again is this, what did the president know and when did he know it? The breaking news in the Russian investigation, Donald Trump's long-time attorney may be his greatest threat. In a surprise appearance in court today, Michael Cohen told a federal judge that Donald Trump was aware of and looped in to negotiations over a potential real-estate deal in Moscow well in to the 2016 campaign, much longer than previously discussed, even after the president was the presumptive Republican nominee. Cohen pleading guilty to making false statements to Congress about this very thing, now saying that he misled Congress about the timeline of the project and how much Donald Trump knew about it.

CNN's White House correspondent, Pamela Brown, is starting us off.

A lot to dig through, Pamela. The special counsel told the judge they believe what Cohen is saying. President Trump just called him a liar.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is what is so significant here, Kate. The president coming out today and saying Michael Cohen, his former attorney for more than a decade, is lying to reduce his sentence.

Here's why that's significant. First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller doesn't believe Michael Cohen is lying in this version of events that was laid out in the court documents, that he misled Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow meeting. He is now saying that, in fact, there were communications about the deal throughout the campaign for president, through June 2016, when Donald Trump is a presumptive Republican presidential nominee, not January 2016, as he initially had told Congress. And also that Donald Trump had been briefed on Trump Tower Moscow project that never came to fruition on multiple occasions, not just the three times that Michael Cohen had initially told Congress.

Now what stuck out to me is that the fact that this is the version special counsel believes, but also it appears we're getting a window into what the president's response is in those questions from Robert Mueller that were returned last week. We know that some of those questions centered around Trump Tower Moscow and what the president knew about it, what his involvement was. The fact that the president is saying that Michael Cohen is lying now with this new version of events indicates that the president's responses do not align with what Michael Cohen is saying the version that Special Counsel Robert Mueller believes. That is significant. And it appears that Robert Mueller's team wanted to wait to get those responses before having Michael Cohen plead guilty to misleading Congress providing false information. All of this is significant. And the fact that there's a cooperation agreement we're learning about between Robert Mueller's team and Michael Cohen and they're saying that we will soon learn about the extent of that Cooperation agreement and the nature of it.

So this big picture here appears to be more than just about Trump Tower Moscow. There appears to be a lot more here that Michael Cohen knows that is providing to special counsel that they find useful in this investigation -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Real significant turn here that you lay out, Pamela.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Let's go to the federal courthouse here in Manhattan for more on this and CNN's Shimon Prokupecz was inside the courtroom for that plea for everything that played out.

Shimon, walk me through what you heard, what's important, what we need to know.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. Key things here from what happened in court essentially, the one probably most important thing that yet again what we have is Michael Cohen admitting that he lied, that he was trying to protect the president. Came into court here today, said as much to the judge, said he lied to members of Congress on behalf of the president, essentially. At one point, saying that he lied because of his loyalty to the president, because he wanted to protect the president politically.

Just to give you some more context of what was going on inside the courtroom, he said that, "I made these statements, these are the statements to Congress, to be consistent with individual one, political messaging and to be loyal to individual one." Now individual one is the president, is Donald Trump, even though did not name Donald Trump in court, and he's not named in any of these court documents. That's who individual one refers to.

The other thing in some of the court documents, some information certainly that the court documents that have come out show sort of the extent of which Michael Cohen went to conceal some of his contacts with a Russian government official, talking about this project, talking to the president about this project. So all in all, really, one of the most probably devastating days here in terms of this investigation certainly as it relates to the president, perhaps maybe members of the president's family, other people who may have been involved in this project. The whole point here, really, is why was this all concealed? Yet again, we see people consistently coming in, eventually, maybe not in the beginning, but eventually admitting that they were lying to protect the president. [11:05:06] BOLDUAN: It seems more than -- you think it was 11 times

individual one is mentioned in this court document, which we know is President Trump.

Shimon, thank you so much.

Shimon hit on something that's really important in the document, in court, laying out the context, the extent of the contact that Michael Cohen and others had with the Russian government.

I want to bring Kara Scannell. She has details on that.

Kara, this is an important part of this piece as well. If we need to just put a really fine point on it, we're talking about Michael Cohen in contact with the Russian government about this real estate deal, potential travel for Donald Trump to Russia to ink said real estate deal in the middle, the heart of the campaign.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN: That's right, Kate. What we've learned from the information today is that, now Michael Cohen had initially said that these talks about building the Trump Tower Moscow ended in January in 2016. And he also said that he had sent -- he made an email into the office of President Putin's spokesman, Peskov, and he said he never heard back. We learned today that he did, in fact, hear back.

If we pull up on one of these screens, we can see what's in the information. Cohen did not recall that in and around January 2016 Cohen received a response from the office of Russian official one, the press secretary for the president of Russia, and spoke to a member of that office about the Moscow project. Now in this phone call, it was a 20-minute call that Cohen had with the assistant, and he discussed with her ideas about moving the project forward and wanted to talk more about how to finance the project. Now this would have involved the Russian government financing the project or helping arrange that financing.

It also says in the information that the day after Cohen's call with assistant one, individual two, which we believe is the gentleman named Felix Sater, contacted Cohen asking for a call. Sater wrote to Cohen saying, "It's about the president of Russia, they called today."

Sater is someone who has had a long history with the Trump Organization. He helped them build two projects, one in Florida and the Trump Hotel, Soho, in New York City. So Sater is someone who's known to the Trump Organization. And so what we're learning here is that Sater was also arranging with Cohen and discussing with him possibly traveling both Cohen and the president to Moscow in May and June of 2016. And Cohen said that he would go before the convention, that the Candidate Trump should go after -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes. I think that's really important what you laid out. The conversation was after he becomes the Republican nominee for president, the conversation was to have him traveling to Moscow to ink this deal.

Kara, thank you so much. I want to get over to Kaitlan Collins now at the White House.

Kaitlan, the president didn't miss a single opportunity before heading out of town to tell reporters, essentially, in his view there's nothing to see here.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kate. He came out, unprompted, before any reporter had even shouted a question at him, and began addressing the situation with Michael Cohen, painting him as a liar, saying he's just trying to get a reduced prison sentence and saying that the only reason he hired him was because he did him a favor a very long time ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was convicted of various things unrelated to us. He was given a fairly long jail sentence. And he's a weak person and, by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he's a weak person, and what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he's lying about a project that everybody knew about.


COLLINS: So, Kate, the president was clearly irritated. But you could tell he was trying to downplay the discussions about Trump Tower and Moscow and project calm, saying that it was out in the open and arguing that he's allowed to do business while running for president. But, Kate, He didn't say why that he said in January 2017 at a press conference that he had no business dealings with Russia and didn't elaborate on why then Michael Cohen lied to Congress about this.

Now the president got on Marine One after that. He's boarding Air Force One right now and he's got about a 10-hour flight to Argentina for the G-20 summit where he's scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin while there. Kate, we may get some tweets from the president on this during that flight.

BOLDUAN: But clear speaking to reporters he's probably still going to be meeting with Putin. Let's see what the conversation is -- yes, first and foremost, let's see what happens aboard that plane, that 10- hour flight.

Kaitlan, thank you very much.

[11:09:36] We have much more to discuss on this breaking news in the Russia investigation. A really critical day. A lot to understand. A lot to work through. We'll do that right after the break.


BOLDUAN: Thank you so much for joining me. We are continuing to follow our breaking news. The special counsel says Michael Cohen is telling the truth. Donald Trump is saying that Michael Cohen is weak and a liar. This all coming back to Michael Cohen pleading guilty in court to misleading Congress over a scrapped Trump Tower deal in Moscow, dealing with the Russian government specifically.

We have much to discuss here. With me right now, Asha Rangappa, she's a former FBI special agent, CNN legal and national security analyst, and Elie Honig, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, and CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here as well.

Gloria, we talked a lot about Michael Cohen before. What is happening right now, this cuts to the heart of the Russia investigation.

[11:14:49] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, it absolutely does. And I want to sort of take a step back for a minute, Kate, to put this all in context because I went back and looked at the story I wrote more than a year ago, September 8th, 2017, when we first got this letter of intent about Trump Tower Moscow. And now I realize that I was fed a pack of lies. That doesn't feel very good. But it was the scenario that Michael Cohen's team was putting out there, which was that this was a deal that never went anywhere, and it was quite -- quite stunning deal, by the way, because Trump would have been given $4 million in an upfront fee without costs. There would have been a spa in this Trump Tower Moscow that would have been named after Ivanka. And it's clear that Ivanka had some involvement in all of this. And that I was told, you know, that this went nowhere because we were -- we didn't think we should pursue it, we didn't have the land for it, and we were in the middle of a presidential campaign, so Michael Cohen decided to drop it. And the president at the same time was telling the American public that he had no business dealings with Russia. And of course, we now know that he knew very well about this and that the activity about a Trump Tower Moscow continued beyond where we were told it ended. And these are people who believed that they were never going to win the election, as the president kind of intimated a few minutes ago, and they wanted to continue their business. And what we now know from the special counsel is that he believes that Michael Cohen lied to Congress about this in order to clearly protect his boss then, Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: That's very important context, Gloria. I was looking back actually at your story as well for some context on this and you can see it all right there.

Elie, Gloria's hitting on something important, that the special counsel says -- Robert Mueller's on board with this, Robert Mueller believes Michael Cohen in what he is saying now, why is that significant because the president's calling him a liar and saying this is nothing?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The first thing I did when I got to this information was turn to the last page and see who signed it. Because when Michael Cohen pled in August, that was signed by the southern district.

BOLDUAN: Right. Right.

HONIG: Remember, Mueller farmed that piece out because he saw it as not down the center of what he was looking at. Today's information is signed by Robert S. Mueller, III, which tells me Mueller sees this as being right down the middle of the plate for his mandate. What we know is Robert Mueller has vetted Michael Cohen. Asha can

confirm. Prosecutors and the FBI are making sure they're accurate and backed up and confirmed. This means that the FBI and Mueller have signed off on Cohen and they're ready to bank on him as a witness.

BOLDUAN: One of the things that Donald Trump brought up as he was leaving was basically making the case that it doesn't -- the deal was scrapped so it doesn't matter, and it wouldn't matter if the deal wasn't scrapped any way. Does it matter?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It absolutely matters. And here's why. You have a candidate for the president of the United States, the most awesome power in the land, who was in active negotiations in something for which he was going to profit potentially, personally, and it wasn't disclosed, at the same time that he is taking a favorable foreign policy stance toward Russia, wanting to change and did change the platform on Ukraine at the Republican National Convention. And even though it didn't go forward, it matters because then Russia had leverage over Trump because it was secret and because his campaign continued to lie about it.

BOLDUAN: Dana Bash is joining the conversation as well.

Dana, thanks for jumping on.

I also think what -- the change in what Trump knew when he knew it and the full extent of what he knew with regard to this deal, that's what this all comes down to, which of course takes us back to what he has said in the past. And it doesn't take you very long to see in July 2016, "For the record, I have zero investments in Russia." January 2017, "Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I have nothing to do with Russia. No deals, no loans, nothing." February of 2017, "I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia, I have no loans in Russia, I don't have any deals in Russia." And --

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And those are the public comments. A couple of things. One is the deal didn't go through, at least this one, so he's on terrafirma there. But most importantly -- it's something we touch on a little bit, but I really think it's important to underscore -- the president of the United States has given a list of written answers formally to Robert Mueller. He has them. He knows what the president has said to a host of things. We reported on two of them yesterday. Now the question is, what it the president say basically, under pain of perjury -- our lawyers can talk about the exact language, but it is a criminal offense to lie, whether you're the president or anyone else to special counsel. So what was his answer to the question about business dealings with Moscow? What was his answer presumably -- and we're trying to get to the bottom of this, specifically -- about conversations he had with Michael Cohen? Because it's hard to imagine Robert Mueller not asking that specific question of the president knowing what he knows and having the conversations for months that he's been having with Michael Cohen that we now know about. That's first and foremost.

[11:20:36] Another thing that hasn't been discussed, but it is all related to this in this time period, the summer of 2016, is another question that we know that the special counsel wanted the president to answer, and that is the Republican National Committee platform, language was changed in a way dealing with Ukraine that made the Russians happy. Why was that done? And the fact that that time period was right around when these discussions were happening with Michael Cohen and the Russians about a potential Trump Tower Moscow deal is very interesting.

BOLDUAN: Dana, you hit -- of course, you hit on something important.

Elie, Asha, on that point Dana first made, which is, is there something? You tell me. Do you think there's something to the timing of Michael Cohen goes in for this surprise court appearance today, last week, Donald Trump handed in his formal questions, and the assumption would be or the reporting is, is that he's asked about the Trump Tower -- potential Trump Tower deal in Moscow? Is there something to the timing?

HONIG: I think the timing is intentional. I think the whole point of the written questions was to lock in the president in black and white and to take away his ability to wiggle or waffle or get out of it. So I think the president wanted to get -- Mueller wanted to get the president committed before he rolled out his evidence, and there's some of the evidence in here.

BOLDUAN: Asha, let's assume the two stories are different.


BOLDUAN: And this is his sworn statements under oath that he's turned in. What happens then?

RANGAPPA: It's a big problem. That is making false statements.

BOLDUAN: For a non-attorney at the table, it sounds like a big problem.


RANGAPPA: It is a big problem. It's the same problem we've seen throughout this investigation, but it's a problem because it is in itself a crime independent of everything else that the special counsel finds.

On the question of false statements, I'll note, that when the president says that this isn't a big deal, remember that false statements is a charge, it's a criminal offense when it is about a material fact, which means that the fact that Michael Cohen lied about this to Congress is something that was material. It's not inconsequential, it's not something that, oh, who cares, people might have known it or not? It was material fact that is relevant to what the committee was investigating at that time.

BASH: Can I throw one other thing in there?

BOLDUAN: Yes, yes. BASH: Just to kind of remember about how Donald Trump then and now operates, how he communicates. He's not an emailer. He's not a texter. And so the other open question that we just got a little piece of is what the evidence that Robert Mueller and his team have that back up what Michael Cohen is saying.

BOLDUAN: That makes them comfortable.


BASH: That Michael Cohen is telling the truth when he says I had these conversations with Donald Trump. We don't know the answer of that. He did have tapes. Was some of that on tapes? We don't know.


BOLDUAN: There are some tapes in that regard.


BOLDUAN: Gloria, on Michael Cohen


BOLDUAN: Maybe, Gloria, on -- one thing that the president said as he was leaving, and I want to make sure I get it correct, is he says that "Michael Cohen is weak, unlike some of the other people that you've seen." We can all guess some of the other people we're talking about. Paul Manafort we've been reporting so much on just in the past couple of days. That was -- that statement stuck out to me.

BORGER: Yes. Of course it did. What it means is, is that, you know, Paul Manafort's now a hero to the president because he's no longer cooperating with the special counsel. And Michael Cohen, he understands, can do him a great deal of damage. They have two completely different stories now about Trump Tower Moscow. And, you know, while it's not a crime to lie to the media, it is a crime for Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, and it is -- it would be a crime if the president, in the answers to his questions, as Dana Bash was talking about, did lie to the special counsel. We don't know the answer to that. But what you have are these two completely divergent stories, one which I was fed, I might add, in the September of 2017, saying this went nowhere, it wasn't going to go anywhere. Michael Cohen saying, I couldn't even get the spokesman for Russia -- for Putin, and of course, now we know, according to what we've read today, that he did communicate with him and that this project was going to continue, it didn't just die. And we need to know what the president said about it.

[11:25:19] We also know that the president's signature at some point was on these documents. The document that I looked at did not have the president's signature, because it belonged to somebody else, but he signed it. I was told at the time that the president doesn't pay attention to these things, he signs lots of documents for people all the time. Well, was the president paying attention? This was a sweetheart deal he was going to be getting in Moscow. Were his children paying attention to this? There was going to be a spa named after Ivanka. Did they testify -- did Don Jr testify, for example, to a congressional committee about this or anything else that now Mueller might be looking at? Because now, for the first time, he is saying, I'm willing to take up lying to Congress as something that I'm willing to pursue --


BOLDUAN: Gloria, when you think of Michael Cohen lying to Congress and being caught and then now he is the biggest potential threat to the president of the United States in this investigation, I mean, the parallels are so very clearly there. Is Michael Cohen turning into the John Dean of this story?

BORGER: Right. It's kind of Shakespearian, you know, in a way. The man -- the man we all knew during the campaign, who described Donald Trump as the greatest person in the universe, is suddenly now the person armed, potentially, with enough who could really cause the president great damage. And it is Shakespearian in nature because of their relationship previously, and his relationship -- I can't emphasize this enough, his relationship to the rest of the Trump family, you know. Michael Cohen was not only Donald Trump's fixer. Michael Cohen fixed a lot for everybody. And so you now have the CFO of the Trump Organization, Alan Weisselberg, being giving limited immunity here. This whole thing is going to unspool itself eventually. We just don't know in which direction.

BOLDUAN: Elie, h ow do you deal with the fact that you've got this key witness who has lied, has admitted he's lied, has lied in the past? How do you deal with that? How does a prosecutor, how does Mueller deal with the fact that this is an untrustworthy person? How do you trust him now?

HONIG: It's all about corroboration. It's all about are they backed up.

BOLDUAN: So you're saying they wouldn't go on this just with Michael Cohen walking in and saying, guess what, I'll now tell you I just lied to Congress. I don't have anything to back it up, though, just take my word for it.

HONIG: Absolutely. What we saw from the president was cooperator bashing 101. He's a liar, he's a turn coat, and this and that. Dana raised a good point. We have the answer to who's telling the truth and who's lying right in this document. The key thing that Cohen said is this deal carried on into June of 2016. Trump says he's a liar. There's text or emails quoted in here, black and white, hard documents in May or June of '2016. It's not that hard to resolve that dilemma. And as prosecutors and agents, that's what we're looking for when deciding, am I going to bank on this guy.

BOLDUAN: Asha, how does the president's attorneys deal with this because --


BOLDUAN: -- because --

RANGAPPA: I don't know.

BOLDUAN: They have -- if this -- if these facts are there, if the corroboration is there, you have the statement that the president gave to the public and you assume he said the same thing in his sworn statement, which is I knew nothing about it.

Do you immediately go, as a human being, if there's nothing to be worried about, why aren't you telling the truth about it?

RANGAPPA: Yes. What his lawyers are thinking about right now, we know that from some of his other answers, for example, they built in that legal wiggle room of, to the best of my recollection, this is what I know.

BOLDUAN: Could that save him here?

RANGAPPA: It depends on how he answered the question. He could use some kind of legalese like that. But, you know, I think that, at the end of the day, what's going to matter is the weight of the evidence that Mueller has collected. And I think what Elie is saying that Mueller has the goods, he has the goods to back up what he's putting on paper. And everybody who's testified in front of Congress -- as Dana mentioned, there are other people that testified, they should be worried. Because if they lied, that means Mueller is willing to come after them. At some point, it's going to be hard to refute what's in black and white.

BOLDUAN: Note to everyone, don't lie to Congress because --


BOLDUAN: We've said it over and over again that it is a crime. It is really, still, a crime.

Dana, I did just get this handed to me. Pamela Brown received a statement from Rudy Giuliani, the -- obviously the attorney for President Trump.