Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Slams Former Attorney Michael Cohen Calls Him "Weak"; Trump Cancels Putin Meeting Citing Ukraine Crisis Not Cohen. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired November 29, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:32:12] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

President Trump blasting his one-time fixer Michael Cohen after Cohen admitted today under oath in federal court that he lied to Congress covering up Trump business dealings in Russia in order to be consistent with the false denials that candidate Trump was telling voters as he ran for president in 2016. The president has been lashing out against the Russia investigation on Twitter and at rallies and in a series of interviews every day this week.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president, and he filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump is suddenly keeping his distance from Russian President Vladimir Putin, abruptly cancelling their one-on-one meeting at the G-20 summit. An hour after saying this today while leaving the White House --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's a very good time to have the meeting.

ZELENY: The president changing course while flying here to Argentina, saying on Twitter: It would be the best for all parties concerned to cancel. He blamed it on Russia's refusal to release Ukrainian navy ships and sailors seized in a confrontation last weekend, but he's been nearly silent on that matter for days.

The only thing that changed is today's bombshell in the Russia investigation. His former fixer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to new charges, saying he lied about how much the president knew during the 2016 campaign, about trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The president said his longtime lawyer was lying.

TRUMP: He's a weak person. He's lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it.

ZELENY: But that's not exactly the case. During his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly denied any business deals with Russia. TRUMP: No, I have nothing to do with Russia. John, John, how many

times do I have to say it? Are you a smart man? I have nothing do with Russia. I have nothing do with Russia.

ZELENY: But in his guilty plea today, Cohen said he lied to congressional investigators when he told them the Trump Tower Moscow project wrapped up before the Iowa caucuses which helped pave the way for Trump winning the Republican nomination. Cohen admitted the negotiations with Russia lasted another five months.

TRUMP: There would be nothing wrong if I did do it. I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities.

ZELENY: Cohen, who is one of Trump's first campaign surrogates --

MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER ATTORNEY: He's a good man. He's a man who cares deeply about this country.

ZELENY: -- worked for Trump for more than a decade, admitted to paying off women who claimed to have an affair with Trump, but turned his back on the president this summer when he made a deal with Robert Mueller.

So, if now Trump believes --

TRUMP: He's a weak person.

ZELENY: -- why hire him in the first place?

TRUMP: Because a long time ago, he did me a favor. A long time ago, he did me a favor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So the president say rival on the world stage here at the G20 summit in Argentina, increasingly consumed by the Russia investigation and increasingly isolated on the world stage.

[16:35:01] Jake, he's been talking about this meeting with Vladimir Putin. It could have been a makeup, if you will, over that Helsinki Summit earlier this summer. He's scrapping plans for that meeting, even the idea of being seen with the Russian president in the wake of all of these revelations, certainly optically not good for this White House.

So, Jake, as of now, that meeting is off.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Let's talk again with the panel.

And, Kaitlan, before the president took off for the summit, he said now is a good time for the summit, though he did say he was going to be briefed on the plane and then less than an hour later, it was off. Did they give a reason why?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They did.

OK. So, here's the time line for this. The president did this interview with "The Washington Post" earlier this week, foreshadowing that he might cancel that meeting, but then he seemed to reverse course today when he was speaking with us before he left the White House saying he believed now was a good time for the meeting.

TAPPER: With Putin, a meeting with Putin?

COLLINS: With Putin, and he had thought about cancelling it, but he had changed his mind, and the meeting was likely to still go on, he said probably. But he did say he was going to the final report on what's going on with Ukraine and Russia he was on Air Force One and then a decision would be made, and that's when that tweet came out.

Now, Sarah Sanders says that the president made that decision in the last half hour in between boarding Marine One and being on Air Force One when he tweeted that after consulting with Secretary of State Pompeo and John Kelly and John Bolton, and that's when he made the decision. But the president's tweet does seem to be the harshest words he's yet since the Russians did seize those Ukrainian ships and sailors because earlier this week, he hadn't said much about it. He said he wasn't happy about it, but he didn't condemn the behavior as other leaders around the world did.

And I think that people on Capitol Hill were really bracing themselves for this meeting in light of those actions and in light of the White House's muted response because they thought the president would go to Argentina and put his arm around Vladimir Putin, and it would be the same thing that we've seen before. But now, the White House says it's cancelled for now.

TAPPER: Do you think the scrapping of the meeting is entirely because of the Russian aggression against Ukraine? You don't think Cohen has anything to do with it at all?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't buy the wag the dog theory of --

TAPPER: Not only it's wag the dog. But, I mean, you know, this is --

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They started a war in "Wag the Dog."

URBAN: Yes, exactly. Well, no, look, I happened to be on network here right after the president of Ukraine the other day, on CNN International, and I listened. It's a serious situation of what took place.

TAPPER: Sure.

URBAN: I mean, they are on the verge of war on the Crimean peninsula. They are at war right now, but an escalated war. It's a very serious situation. I think the president probably got the full briefing, at Kaitlan outlined from Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Mattis, Ambassador Bolton and realized the gravity of it.

This is the key time, right, G20, everybody is there. It's a big snub to Putin, and Putin has been saying this is all made up, totally made up but the Ukrainians. This really didn't happen, so it's a real punch in the face by the president here.

TAPPER: What do you think?

LIZZA: You know, I tend to agree with David on this actually. And David will agree with me, what a humiliation his press conference with Vladimir Putin was last time they met.

TAPPER: In Helsinki.

LIZZA: In Helsinki. This was after essentially Putin had attacked the United States documented by our intelligence services.

TAPPER: The election interference and the cyber attacks, yes.

LIZZA: Yes, and the president got up there on the stage with Putin and basically, you know, let him off the hook on all of that, and it was roundly condemned, you know, across the board, and I think in the wake of what's going on with Ukraine, his advisers who, remember, these are pretty hawkish -- you know, Pompeo and Bolton, they still come out of that hawkish wing of the Republican Party who have -- and traditionally they have had very different views on Russia than Trump does.

So I think what the White House is saying for once is actually accurate, that he's doing it for the -- that reason.

TAPPER: And yet, Symone, and it's also true that Michael Cohen's story about the development in Moscow, it wasn't just him reaching out to Russian developers. He was reaching out to the Kremlin.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, because the Kremlin has to -- approves all of these business dealings, and the Kremlin would have to give the go for Donald Trump to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Look, I think that the president -- I'm not -- again, I always like to say I'm not passing out cookies and the pats on the back. I'm not passing out cookies and the pats on the back for Donald Trump quickly cancelling a meeting, because what is he going to do when he gets to the G-20? What kind of conversation is he going to have? What is he going to say at the press conference?

I think we need to see a strategy from this White House when it comes to Russia on this particular issue that we frankly have not seen.

URBAN: No, we have.

SANDERS: Donald Trump has also cancelled meetings, though, with Turkey and South Korea. My question is does the president not want to go to work?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: This administration has been very, very hawkish here. We've been arming the Ukrainians, really, really strong position on this, far stronger than the Obama administration had ever taken.

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: Against the president's --

COLLINS: There's always --

SANDERS: Congress had to force him into that.

COLLINS: There's always a chance for a pull-aside between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.

TAPPER: Right.

COLLINS: An informal meeting where they get together and talk, but I do think cancelling the meeting -- Sarah Sanders said they had not called the Kremlin to tell them it's cancelled.

[16:40:05] URBAN: It's a black eye. Gives them a punch in the face.

TAPPER: We'll see because I mean, now it's off until he leaves the summit. Then we'll see -- then we'll know if he actually doesn't meet with him.

Acting Attorney General Michael Whitaker signed off on Michael Cohen's plea deal, the same guy Democrats thought would stifle the Mueller investigation, would suffocate it. One of those Democrats, incoming House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, joins me live next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to our politics lead.

Top House Democrats are already promising to investigate after President Trump's longtime fixer Michael Cohen admitted today that he lied to Congress to protect the president about Russian business dealings.

Joining me now is one of those Democrats, Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York. He's the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, expected to become the chairman of that committee when the Democrats take control in January.

Thanks so much for being here.

[16:45:00] I appreciate it.

REP. JERRY NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Thank you.

TAPPER: So this is -- look, this is clearly not welcome news for the President. I don't want to pretend that it is. But once again, I look at these documents and I don't see any evidence of conspiracy between members of the Trump team and members of the Russian government to interfere in the election.

NADLER: Well, first of all, the President obviously has to be feeling very upset and angry now that -- now that we know that Michael Cohen was lying to Congress on -- was lying to Congress on his behalf, and he has to be upset about what Michael Cohen has admitted to now and presumably what he will admit to. And what he's admitted to is that he was negotiating a corrupt business deal in Russia on behalf of the President during the campaign when the President was saying there was no negotiating -- there was no business dealing.

TAPPER: You call it corrupt business dealing?

NADLER: Well, the fact that it was a negotiating with a foreign power or a business deal while you're running for President --

TAPPER: Not illegal, you mean, like more just colloquially corrupt.

NADLER: Yes, yes.

TAPPER: But still no conspiracy/

NADLER: Well, wait a minute. It certainly tends to indicate -- it's one more piece of evidence. Remember that -- so now we know or Cohen testifies the fact that there Trump during the campaign at the same time that he is dictating a change in the Republican platform to favor the Russians, at the same time that he can find nothing negative to say about Putin or about what they're doing is, in fact, negotiating with the Russian government for personal business profits.

He's mixing his personal business profits with respect -- and perhaps putting them over the interest of the United States and full -- and lying to the electorate about it.

TAPPER: Sure it stinks. I'm not -- I'm not saying it's not but that's not conspiracy is all I'm saying.

NADLER: Well, first of all, it may be conspiracy.

TAPPER: Not to interfere with the election. There's no evidence to that.

NADLER: No, but now you have another -- you have another piece of evidence of active business dealings that's conspiring by Trump with the Russian government at the time. At the same time that you have other people who are agents of Trump dealing with all the things, we've seen about the hacking, Guccifer 2.0 and the WikiLeaks and everything else. It's another point of Trump's close relationship with the Russians while he was denying it and they're all tends in the same direction.

TAPPER: So President Trump responded to basically what you said earlier today. Let's play that. He basically says he was -- he wasn't President, he was just a candidate, he can do what he wants. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Even if he was right, it doesn't matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Is that true?

NADLER: Well, he -- well, no he's not allowed to do whatever he wants to in the campaign but he is allowed to have private business dealings with the Russians, he is not allowed to have private business dealings with Russians and lie to the American electorate about it and at the same time changed the Republican platform with respect to the Russian. In other words, to mix his public policy and probably the public policy going forward into his presidency based on --

TAPPER: When you say that he's not allowed to, I don't -- I'm not disputing that it stinks, but it's not illegal, right?

NADLER: It's not illegal to have public -- to have business dealings with Russians. It's not illegal to change the Republican platform. It may very well be illegal to take that public -- and it's certainly illegal if he's done anything as president based on his business relationships with the Russians. And this is another piece of evidence going toward that -- toward that conclusion.

TAPPER: So CNN has just learned that Acting Attorney General Whitaker was informed of the Cohen plea deal ahead of time according to a source familiar with the process. Now, legally, theoretically, as Acting Attorney General, he could have acted to stop the deal if he wanted to. You have expressed serious concerns about the Acting Attorney General Mr. Whitaker. Does this reassure you at all that he let this happen?

NADLER: It doesn't reassure me. It -- I'm glad to see that he acted -- that he didn't act corruptly to protect the President this instance, but we still have a lot of reasons to question his impartiality and whether he'll do justice and allow the Mueller probe to go wherever the evidence leads. It's relieving that he didn't corruptly seek to stop it here, but that's all I'll say. We still -- it's still very important to pass the legislation pending in the Senate and the House to protect the Mueller investigation from interference by the White House or by -- or about a Mr. Whitaker.

And again what we're seeing now is evidence of close collusion between the President -- or the President and the Russians, not necessarily in the campaign but at the same time as the campaign and that's very worrisome and indicates proximity. There's another point of proof that we have to -- that we have to look at in terms of the collusion with the campaign too. And at least we know, the American people showed in the election that they don't trust the Republicans not to lay down for the President because Republicans in Congress have totally failed to do any oversight and they've shown that they want this Congress to do oversight and we will.

[16:50:42] TAPPER: Yes or no question if I can do it. Are you going to call Michael Cohen to testify before your committee?

NADLER: That I don't know but I'm sure he's going to be before the Intelligence Committee because that's where he lied first.

TAPPER: Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, thanks so much. Coming up next, how one of President Trump's cabinet members helped this multi-millionaire/alleged serial child rapist avoid serious prison time with a "deal of a lifetime." Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "BURIED LEAD" today, that's what we call stories we don't think are getting the attention they deserve. Minutes ago, we found out that the Trump administration Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta is no longer in the running to be the next Attorney General according to a source after an absolutely astonishing investigation by the Miami Herald.

The Herald detailed how an accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, a then friend of both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump was given a mere slap on the wrist and Acosta helped Epstein avoid any serious prison time. CNN's Rene Marsh joins me now. She has the story. And Rene, at least one member of Congress is now calling on the Justice Department to investigate.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right. South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is calling on the Office of Inspector General inside of the Justice Department to immediately open an investigation into potential corruption surrounding Secretary Acosta's actions as a federal prosecutor. And the new details coming out are causing damage to Acosta's political trajectory. We are now learning he is no longer being considered for the Attorney General position.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL FISTEN, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: He's supposed to be protecting these victims and he was protecting Jeffrey Epstein, a pedophile.

MARSH: According to an extensive investigation by the Miami Herald, accused serial pedophile and multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein got a sweetheart deal thanks to President Trump's Labor Secretary Alex Acosta.

ALEX ACOSTA, SECRETARY OF LABOR, UNITED STATES: As of today --

MARSH: The paper found that as a U.S. Attorney in Florida in 2007, Acosta and another federal prosecutor struck a plea deal with Epstein's legal team just as the FBI was investigating years of alleged sex crimes. The Herald reports Epstein's accusations in food at least 36 underage victims, a steady stream of girls 16 years and younger in and out of his sprawling Palm Beach mansion and allegations he paid teens to recruit more young victims. Michael Fisten is a private investigator for the legal team

representing some of the victims.

I read the indictment, there was multiple allegations of sex trafficking, trafficking girls across lines, using his airplane the traffic girls, witness intimidation, and then all of a sudden it disappeared.

MARSH: According to the Miami Herald, the agreement between Acosta and Epstein's legal team allowed the defense to dictate the terms, shut down the FBI investigation into additional victims and accomplices, granted immunity to potential co-conspirators, and it was kept secret from the victims until it was approved. Now, victims have filed a civil suit calling the plea deal Acosta arranged illegal.

Is it illegal or just improper?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It could be both. It certainly is improper.

MARSH: As for Epstein, he pleaded guilty to just to state prostitution charges and served 13 months in county jail. He registered as a sex offender and paid restitution to his victims. Secretary Acosta addressed the plea deal in his confirmation hearing last year.

ACOSTA: Based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor's office decide that a plea that guarantees that someone goes to jail, that guarantees that someone registered generally, and that guarantees other outcomes is a good thing.

For a victim's be kept in the dark entirely in conjunction with an FBI probe being shut down and a favorable plea according to reporting that says he's able to have work release privileges and be able to leave his jail cell and not have publicity in a large extent for these cases, that's what's so shocking about this.

MARSH: The Herald interviewed several victims including Virginia Roberts who was employed at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago Resort which is near Epstein's mansion when she was recruited.

VIRGINIA ROBERTS, SEX ABUSE VICTIM: The training started immediately. I mean it was everything down to how to be quiet, be subservient, give Jeffrey what he wants. And you know, before you know it I'm being lent out to politicians and to academics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: While this incident raising questions about Acosta's judgment, if he brokered a deal that's unethical or illegal or perhaps not even in the interest of victims, serious questions for someone currently in a position of power as Labor Secretary, Jake.

TAPPER: Rene Marsh thank you so much. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.