Return to Transcripts main page


Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty to Lying About Trump Tower Moscow. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 29, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Could the fixer end up being the man who breaks the Trump presidency?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: what could be the biggest direct threat to President Trump to date, President Trump's former cleanup guy, Michael Cohen, now causing a mess, pleading guilty to lying to Congress about Trump business in Moscow, and now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.

What Cohen now admits and what the president might have known.

Also breaking today, on the heels of all of this, President Trump canceling his meeting with Vladimir Putin, not because of Michael Cohen, he claims, but over Putin's aggression in Ukraine, as one key lawmaker tells the president to find his spine.

Plus, a new scandal surrounding a member of the president's Cabinet. Did he help give cover to an accused serial pedophile?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Shocking news today, with special counsel Robert Mueller announcing a cooperation agreement with and a new felony charge against the president's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.

Cohen making a surprise appearance in a federal court today, pleading guilty to lying to Congress about President Trump's business dealings in Russia, and Cohen said he did it to help then candidate Donald Trump, who was telling voters at the time he had no commercial or political ties to Russia.

So Cohen repeated that lie before Congress, testifying today -- quote -- "I made these statements to be consistent with Individual 1's political messaging and to be loyal to Individual 1."

Individual 1 is President Donald J. Trump.

The court documents lay out Cohen's multiple false statements which center around the proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. Cohen now saying discussions of the project did not end in January 2016, as he had testified to Congress, but continued at least through June 2016, the same month as that Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

June 2016, well after the time that Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Cohen also says he briefed Donald Trump and members of the Trump family on the project multiple times. President Trump this morning told reporters Cohen is lying, in exchange for leniency.

But the president stressed, even if he did do the deal that he did not do, that would be fine.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's very simple. He's got himself a big prison sentence, and he's trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story.

Now, here's the thing. Even if he was right, it doesn't matter, because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.


TAPPER: This move by special counsel Robert Mueller coming after Trump submitted his written answers to Mueller's questions in which he was asked about that very project, and given that previous charges against Cohen were by the U.S. attorney in New York City, and not special counsel Mueller, this also marks the first official step by Robert Mueller over what President Trump has called his red line, investigating Trump business dealings.

This also comes after several days of wild Trump tweets attacking Mueller and his team.

CNN's Pamela Brown joins me now.

And, Pamela, you're learning that the Trump Tower Moscow project is just one of the many topics about which Michael Cohen has spoken with Mueller.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is just the tip of the iceberg, Jake.

A source familiar says that Michael Cohen has spent more than 70 hours with Robert Mueller's team on a variety of topics related to Russia.


BROWN (voice-over): President Trump former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen dropping a bombshell in federal court, pleading guilty to lying to Congress about how much the president knew about a potential Trump Tower project in Russia during the campaign out of loyalty to President Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Cohen will continue to cooperate. BROWN: The plea agreement says the man who once said he'd take a

bullet for the president gave information to special counsel Robert Mueller during more than 70 hours of questioning between August and November.

According to court documents, among other things, Cohen discussed the status and progress of the Moscow project with Trump, referred to as Individual 1 on more than three occasions, Cohen claimed.

And while Cohen told Congress last fall that the Moscow project ended in January of 2016, he now admits discussions about the project lasted as late as approximately June 2016, when Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Cohen now admits he made the false statements to protect Donald Trump and minimize links between the Moscow project and Individual 1 and give the false impression that the Moscow project ended before the Iowa caucus and the very first primary, in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.

And he admits he then spoke to candidate Trump about traveling to Moscow and discussed on multiple occasions traveling to Russia to pursue the Moscow project with Russian-American business associate Felix Sater, who had suggested to Cohen in an e-mail, "Our boy can become the president. United States, and we can engineer it."


According to the court transcript, Cohen said: "I made these misstatements to be consistent with Trump's political messaging and out of loyalty."

The president responded today by attacking Cohen.

TRUMP: He's a weak person and what he is trying to do is get a reduced sentence, so he's lying a project that everybody knew about.

BROWN: But everyone did not know about it. The details of the project were not made public until a "New York Times" report in February 2016 (sic), after the election.

And while the president denies the accusations, he also says if the project in Moscow did move forward, there would have been no issue.

TRUMP: Even if he was right, it doesn't matter, because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business, a lot of different things, during the campaign.

BROWN: But the ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which Cohen admits he lied to, see it differently.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: It means that when the president was representing during the campaign that he had no business interests in Russia, that that wasn't true.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: If anything the president has said is true, that there's no there there, why are all his closest associates being found guilty of lying about their ties to Russia?


BROWN: And Rudy Giuliani told me on the phone today that there is no contradiction between the written response from the president on this question of Trump Tower Moscow and what Michael Cohen has said.

But what is clear here, Jake, that this is not over. Mueller's team made it clear in court documents they find Cohen to be truthful based on corroborating evidence and they will continue to work together.

And they also say they're prepared to reveal to the court the extent and scope and nature of the cooperation agreement, so we could learn more in court documents moving forward, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Let talk about it with the experts here.

Kaitlan Collins, President Trump's defense seems to be threefold. One, Michael Cohen is lying, two, I didn't ultimately do the Moscow project and, three, even if I had, that would have been fine. Is he worried?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Which raises the questions if that is what happened, then why didn't he not say that before, why did he instead say he had no business dealings with Congress, and then why did Michael Cohen lie to Congress about it?

And what Pam just said there, that the president's legal team is now saying the president's recollection of all of this matches up with Michael Cohen said today, why didn't the president correct Michael Cohen's congressional testimony, which became public months ago, where he said they did not discuss this any further after January 2016, which is what he had to correct today, which is what he lied to Congress about?

It raises all of these questions about this, but I do think the president is concerned about this. He came out to reporters today when he was leaving the White House and unprompted before any of us had even shouted a question he started addressing the situation, started trying to defend it, arguing that he could do business dealings while he was running for president if he wanted to and that it was all above-board.

But he did seem shaken up. He didn't seem like the typical President Trump that you see, who is defiant. He did seem a little bit concerned that all of this has come out about Michael Cohen.

TAPPER: Something interesting that he also said, David Urban, is that he said something along the lines of, I'm paraphrasing, the odds were that I wasn't going to win. I needed to keep my business going.


If you look at it, the president was officially the nominee on July 22 of 2016.

TAPPER: But he was the presumptive nominee after May.


URBAN: But he still wasn't the nominee.

Listen, I can tell you, I was in Cleveland, right, and we were worried that the president -- there was going to be a floor fight in the convention, it was going to be ugly. He might not be the nominee.

So when the president says he's keeping his day job, I mean, I take him at face value. Look, there were no investments. The president had no investments. These are talks about a development deal. It wasn't an investment. The president had no holdings in Russia. This was talks, and who knows.

I can't tell you what Michael Cohen was doing or peddling or selling overseas, what he was representing, right? I don't know those things. I don't know those facts. The special counsel -- now, what we do know is that he lied.


URBAN: And he just had to plead guilty. That's the only thing we know right now.

TAPPER: Cohen says these conversations about the Trump Tower Moscow project continued until June 2016.

One month later, in July 2016, Donald Trump tweeted -- quote -- "For the record, I have zero investments in Russia."

And then take a listen to President Trump in January 2017.


TRUMP: I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals in Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we have stayed away, and I have no loans with Russia.


TAPPER: I guess it depends on what the definition of the word is, is.


And the issue, of course, is not whether he had investments when he was running for president, right? He was taking policy positions as a primary candidate and then as the Republican nominee with direct impact on Russia, right?


So if you're Donald Trump and all of a sudden you have got a question in your party platform, for example, of do you want to give arms to Ukraine or do you want to go soft on Putin, well, we know at the convention they went soft on Putin.


LIZZA: That's the conflict of interests problem that people have been shout begun since 2015 that we now know was a very good reason to shout about it.


URBAN: Even Michael Cohen has said only June of 2016, that's the last time I talked to the president. It may have ended in June 2016, before the convention. We don't know.

LIZZA: The conflict of interests problem I'm talking about is, if you are pursuing a project that is dependent...


LIZZA: ... good graces of June 16 and you're also taking campaign positions on things...


URBAN: How do you know that the last conversation that Michael Cohen had in June of 2016 with the president was this isn't going to work, throws up his hands and leaves?


URBAN: Why are you assuming that it's the worst?


SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: To be clear for the folks at home, even if it was, conversations about the platform at convention are months in the working in a convention, whether it's Republican or Democratic.



URBAN: No, not true.


SANDERS: They are. It is true.


TAPPER: For a typical candidate.


SANDERS: I'm talking about like you just don't show up at convention with a platform that all of the delegates vote on, as though no one has seen it before.

So there's conversations about what goes into the platform.

URBAN: You weren't in Cleveland.

SANDERS: Maybe not as early as seven months before, but perhaps a month, perhaps a month-and-a-half, perhaps two months.


TAPPER: I think he's saying it was a little bit more ad hoc.


URBAN: I was there. I was there.


URBAN: Symone, were you there? I was the only one at the table that was at the convention.


LIZZA: I was at the convention.


TAPPER: Kaitlan, take a listen to former campaign chair Paul Manafort when asked about Norah O'Donnell about the issue of Trump's business dealings in July 2016.


QUESTION: So, to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with anyone Russian oligarchs?

PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER DONALD TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: That's what he said. That's obviously what our position is.


TAPPER: Kind of an uncomfortable answer. That's what he said. That's what I said. That's what our position is.


COLLINS: There's a period of like six seconds of silence after that where Norah just kind of sits there. That's a great clip.

But I do think that's the question here, because as President Trump said today, he said there's a good chance I wouldn't win, so why would I give up these opportunities in case I went back into business?

So if he's operating with that mind-set even after he became the nominee, it's fine for me to have Michael Cohen speak to Russian, not just Russian businessmen, Russian officials. (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Yes, the Kremlin.

URBAN: We don't know. But that's the thing. We don't know. There's only one person that knows, right?

COLLINS: Right. But here's -- this is the classic Donald Trump, what he does. He straddles the line.

So, when he's there on camera at a press conference saying I had no business with Russia, nothing like that, the question is, does it count as a business dealing if you're sending your longtime attorney...


TAPPER: But he also said: "We have stayed away. I have no that could happen in Russia because we have stayed away."


TAPPER: They hadn't stayed away.

COLLINS: Right. That's where Donald Trump straddles the line, where he makes statements like this that are open-ended to where it's not specific enough that he's lying, but it is open-ended enough to clear him of any wrongdoing.

TAPPER: But we're also at a point, Ryan, I think it's fair to say, that President Trump has clearly lied about this to the public, he's lied about this to the press, but the question is, has he lied about this to Mueller?

And the evidence right now is, at least according to his attorneys, no.


And, look, I don't even think that this is the worst thing that's happened this week for the president. To me, the worst thing that came out today is the number 70. That's the number of hours that Michael Cohen sat down with the Mueller team, all right?

It does not take you 70 hours to say I lied about the Trump -- about the Russia deal, right? It takes you maybe five minutes to tell them that one, so I think the big fear for the White House is, what else did Cohen say in those 70 hours and what is coming down the pike?

URBAN: Look, and that is what is at the nub of a lot of this about the president's ire about crossing that line. Right?

As Ryan points out, Manafort conviction, plea, you know, pleadings were all about things that happened prior to the campaign, prior to -- you know, prior to involvement with the president. The president is I think concerned about the FBI going in with

unlimited resources, unlimited amount of time and continuing to probe about his businesses a long, long time ago, right, that Michael Cohen may have been involved. And that's with unfettered discretion, unfettered -- unlimited budget.


LIZZA: Just one minor fact-check. The indictments against Manafort said that he was committing crimes during his time running the Trump camp.


LIZZA: I'm not saying those are necessarily Trump-related.


TAPPER: It was during the time he was...

URBAN: But those are not campaign -- there's not collusion. We know from the filings that the special prosecutor had no collusion.


TAPPER: Symone, just to remind our viewers, Michael Cohen says in court today -- quote -- "I made these statements, these lies, to be consistent with Individual 1's political messaging and to be loyal to Individual 1."

So he's basically saying President Trump was lying saying that there were no business dealings; therefore, I lied to Congress to back him up.

SANDERS: Yes, shocker. The president has lied again.

This is why it's hard for me to take at face value what the president and his allies are saying about

[16:15:00] This is why it's hard for me to take at face value what the president and his allies are saying about anything in relation to Russia. What -- even what the president's lawyers are saying and if I'm coming from Rudy Giuliani, I'm giving it a side eye because they have been known of to say whatever it is advantageous for them to say to keep Donald Trump out of trouble when it comes to this issue.

So, I think this is why it's important when the 116th Congress gets together that the House Intelligence Committee will take up a more serious tone when it comes to this investigation.

URBAN: But you think Mueller is not doing a good enough job?

SANDERS: I'm not talking -- but, you know, the House has oversight.

URBAN: Right.

SANDERS: And the House has a committee that was supposed to do their due diligence and thanks to Devin Nunes, they didn't.

LIZZA: Well, this is a good question about Nunes. They lied to Nunes and his committee, what do Republicans on that committee think?

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We've got more to talk about.

Part of the Michael Cohen filings mentioned Trump family members. Might this spell trouble for Donald Trump Jr.?

Then, only 13 months behind bars for an accused serial child rapist and he was also let out during the day. A new investigation raising questions about a deal struck by one of the president's cabinet members.

Stay with us.


[16:20:09] TAPPER: And we're back with new trouble for President Trump and the Russia investigation. His former fixer Michael Cohen today suggesting that President Trump is lying to everyone, specifically about his business dealings with Russia. It's a far cry from the days when Cohen felt his former boss could do nothing wrong or say nothing inaccurate.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP: I've worked for Mr. Trump for a long time, and I can tell you that Mr. Trump's memory is fantastic, and I've never come across a situation where Mr. Trump has said something that's not accurate.

TAPPER: There are -- seriously?

COHEN: Yes, seriously.


TAPPER: Today, Cohen testified that he lied before Congress specifically to back up something that then candidate Trump had said that was inaccurate indeed at the very least.

Let's talk about it with our legal panel.

Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with you. What's the legal significant to this development today in the context of the entire investigation?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Motive. This is all about motive. You know, why was Donald Trump so solicitive of Vladimir Putin? Why did he change the Republican platform? Why was he endlessly defending Putin?

Because, today's developments suggest, he had business interests during the campaign, and, you know, he said on the White House lawn today, well, everybody knew about that. No one knew about that. It would have been explosive during the primaries. The whole point of keeping it secret was keeping his financial motives

-- financial interests alive in case he lost, so he was using his position as the Republican candidate to cultivate his financial interests, not doing the national interest. That's why today is so important.

TAPPER: But, Kim, that might undermine the idea that there was a conspiracy between the Trump team and the Russian government to influence the election. It might be just a case of old-fashioned greed.

KIM WEHLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, we don't know what other information Mr. Cohen has that he's going to be telling prosecutors or has told prosecutors. Seventy hours is a really long time, and this plea was not necessary. That is we already had the prior plea so presumably this topic is something that the prosecution team is interested in talking to Mr. Cohen about in connection with potentially other witnesses and other crimes.

And there's two key issues I think here factually. One is, now we know that the conversations around Trump Tower in Russia went into June 2016 which, of course, was the meeting in Trump Tower in New York where Jared Kushner and Don Jr. as well as Paul Manafort met with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, and the president has been very clear in stating publicly that I had no knowledge of this. Now, we know he has knowledge he has knowledge of other things he publicly stated he didn't have knowledge of.

The other thing is in September, August and September of that year, in the Steele dossier that's been I think not completely refuted. A lot of it is true.

TAPPER: Right.

STEELE: Mr. Steele said that Mr. Cohen went to -- through Germany, to Europe, to Prague and had a meeting with Russians to kind of sweep some of this collusion, for lack of a better word, under the rug. So, those two pieces in my mind are places where President Trump is linked to these conversations whereas so far a lot of people are saying, listen, nothing -- everything happened prior to the campaign. It has nothing to do with Trump himself.

And, by the way, Mr. Cohen is not to be trusted, but we don't know how much corroborating evidence Mueller has.

TAPPER: A lot of blanks to be filled in.

Jeffrey, I want to highlight one section. On page five of the charging documents, Mueller notes that Cohen, quote, briefed family members of individual one, that's the president, with a company, that's the Trump company, about the project, that's the Russia project.

Now, the president's eldest son Donald Trump Jr. had this exchange during his private testimony with the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. The question, quote, it's been reported I believe on CNN that Mr. Cohen had reached out to an e-mail box at the Kremlin that was a generic mailbox for Dmitry Peskov. Were you aware of that before the public reporting? And Don Jr. answers no, I was not.

He's asked, quote, did you have any involvement in this potential deal in Moscow? Don Jr. responds, like I said I was peripherally aware of it, but most of my knowledge has been gained since as it relates to hearing about it over the last ten weeks.

I guess the big question, is this inclusion of the fact that Michael Cohen briefed members of the Trump team, does that potentially expose families members like Trump Jr. to some risk?

TOOBIN: It does. And I think another thing worth highlighting in the charging document that came out today is that there was a good deal of e-mail traffic between Felix Sater, who is one of Trump's business associates and Michael Cohen about this Russia deal. I think we all know Donald Trump Sr. doesn't do e-mail, but Donald Trump Jr. does do e-mail as far as I know.

[16:25:03] Was he informed of anything related to the Moscow project? That would contradict what he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Remember also that Donald Trump Jr.'s position and Donald Trump Sr.'s position is that they never discussed the Trump Tower meeting which was also in June of 2016. That has always seemed highly questionable to me. Today's developments put that in -- in question as well, plus the Trump position is that Roger Stone may have talked to Donald Trump frequently during the campaign but they never discussed WikiLeaks which was obviously of obsessive interest to both Donald Trump and Roger Stone, the fact that they -- I mean, all of these things come together make the Trump position factually more difficult to maintain.

TAPPER: And, Kim, I want to ask you because there was something the end of this document. It ends like one of the writers and producers here described it as a cliffhanger.

Mueller walks through Cohen's false statements over eight pages and then it ends with this. The day after Cohen's call with assistant one, that's somebody who works for Dmitry Peskov and the Kremlin, individual two, that's Felix Sater, contacted him, asking for a call. Felix Sater wrote to Cohen, it's about the president of Russia. They called today, and then it ends, like a -- like a thriller, like the end of a chapter in a thriller.

You've worked on documents like this. What is -- what's the reason for a cliffhanger like that?

WEHLE: Well, as I said earlier, it sounds like this actual plea could be used to build a case against other people. That is, if you're going to use him as a witness, you want him to sound like he's had a mea culpa about his criminal role on this particular issue, so we'll have to see how things unfold, and as we've talked about before, I think the bigger kind of macro issue is what is Mr. Whitaker's role as these things are unfolding?

It's a good thing I think for democracy that now we're seeing that the Mueller investigation is going forward. These things are happening, but we're just -- but to the extent to which someone like Don Jr. might be implicated down the line or Jared Kushner, I think we're going to really have to see what the president does and what tools he uses in his toolbox to try to stop things or slow them down.

TAPPER: Kim, Jeffrey, thank you so much.

Well, that's one way to try to change a subject, cancel a controversial summit with Vladimir Putin. But did it work? Stay with us.