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Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty to Lying to Congress; Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired November 29, 2018 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00] ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Everything he's done, or all the big things he's done, and I think we saw the completion of that today. On the flipside, the prosecution team gets to know -- and use everything Michael Cohen knows. So, yes, the financial entanglements with Russia. Yes, the false statements to Congress. But everything else, too.

The campaign finance violations relating to the payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. The Trump Tower meeting, what Cohen knows about that, whether Trump knew about it, so Cohen's an open book now and what we learned today is that the Southern District and Mueller have signed off and are ready to bank on him.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Elie Honig, thanks very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: Top of the hour now and quite an hour in the news here. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow.

Our breaking news is new and colossal in terms of the advancement of the special counsel's investigation. President Trump's former lawyer, fixer, mouthpiece, the man who said he'd take a bullet for the president, Michael Cohen this morning just moments ago pleaded guilty in federal court in Lower Manhattan, guilty to lying to Congress. Cohen now admits that he deliberately gave a false timeline of the Trump Organization's attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

SCIUTTO: He had maintained to congressional committees, reporters, to others that he working for Trump abandoned a potential big Moscow real estate project in January of 2016. He now says that contacts with potential Russian partners continued for months afterwards, up into June 2016 after Donald Trump was the Republican nominee for president.

We have teams of reporters in Washington and New York. Let's begin with CNN's Pam Brown.

I know you've been looking through these court documents here. Just an enormous amount of news that contradicts, frankly, a story that the president has been telling for some time. PAMELA BROWN, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it is significant

that this is the president's former attorney for more than a decade now pleading guilty to misleading Congress about what Donald Trump knew concerning this Trump Tower-Moscow deal that was in the works during the presidential campaign. Now it never actually went through but what is significant here is that Michael Cohen is saying he misled Congress on the dates. He said initially to Congress in 2017 that the deal fell apart in January of 2016.

Well, now he is saying, according to these court documents, that actually there were discussions about this deal with Russian officials through June of 2016, around the time that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Also he says that he wasn't truthful in terms of what Donald Trump knew. He initially had told Congress that there were three conversations with Donald Trump about this, but in these court documents it says that there were conversations on more than three occasions and that he also briefed family members of Donald Trump within the company, the Trump Organization, about this project.

Also we're learning that he wasn't truthful about plans to travel to Russia. He had told Congress that there weren't plans for him to travel to Russia or Donald Trump, and now according to these court documents, not only was there a plan in the works for him to go to Russia that never came to fruition, but also there was contemplation for Donald Trump to go to Russia.

And the why is also listed in these court documents. Michael Cohen saying he wanted to protect Donald Trump and that is why he misled Congress saying that he wanted to give the false impression that the Moscow project ended before the Iowa caucus, in the very first primary, in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigation.

Now this is significant for a number of reasons. The president has said he had no dealings with Russia and we know that in the recent questions submitted to Donald Trump and his team from Robert Mueller includes questions about Trump Tower Moscow. What the president, then candidate Trump knew about it?

Now what's key here is that there was no legal defense agreement during the time with Michael Cohen and his team while the president was going over these questions. That agreement fell through months ago and so the president's legal team was working with what Michael Cohen has only said to Congress and said publicly, so you can imagine that Robert Mueller and his team will be comparing notes on what the president said in his responses to Robert Mueller and what we're now learning from Michael Cohen in these court documents about the Trump Tower project during the campaign.

SCIUTTO: It's a great point, Pamela. That's what happens now, compare with one witness says under sworn testimony to what another says.

HARLOW: Yes. SCIUTTO: I just want to note this because this is just into CNN.

There was no response yet. CNN has reached out to two Trump's attorneys.

HARLOW: Sure.

SCIUTTO: For a response on this. No comment yet from the lawyers for the president and no tweet yet from the president himself. But we'll certainly be watching for it.

HARLOW: Right. The president in the past has tried to discredit Michael Cohen. What will his response be this morning? We will let you know as soon as we know.

Let's go to our colleague Shimon Prokupecz. He again is outside of the courthouse.

Moments ago, if our viewers are just joining us, Michael Cohen, his attorney casually walked down those stairs, and his attorney said Michael Cohen has cooperated and will continue to cooperate. It is hard to overstate the significance of that.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: It is. You can't overstate the significance of that. You can't overstate the significance of today that yet again someone has come here, yes, it's Michael Cohen, and basically admitted to lying to investigators, this time it was congressional investigators on behalf of the president, trying to hide, trying to protect the president.

You have Michael Cohen who came into court here today. You have this information that was now been filed with the court, which details the reason why he lied, what he was trying to do here.

Look, this is all extremely significant and probably what's on Michael Cohen's mind as he left court here today, he didn't say anything. It was his attorney who spoke saying that he's going to continue to cooperate, and clearly what we see here is that investigators, FBI agents, I saw some of the senior level people here from the New York FBI that have been running this case from the beginning, walk out.

What this tells us is that they're believing a lot of what he's saying and that is significant and certainly does not bode well for the president, does not bode well for people with the Trump Organization and any other deals that Michael Cohen may have been involved in.

The other thing to consider is, what will Michael Cohen get out of this? Will he get a lenient sentence or could this significantly reduce the amount of jail time that he's been facing? That's going to be, you know, an interesting development as we go here. He's due for sentencing on December 12th. It'll be interesting to see if the government files a letter on his behalf essentially asking the judge for some leniency because he's continuing to cooperate.

We could also see his sentencing delayed around that time because he could be continuing to cooperate, but nonetheless, a significant day. You know, just when we think things may be winding down in this investigation, it looks like that's probably not going to happen now as things just continue to develop and things just continue to surprise us certainly for those of us who have been covering this for such a long period of time now that time and time again new developments occur, new surprises and nonetheless today a huge development, a significant move here by Michael Cohen to continue to cooperate and to continue really, to go against the president in this investigation.

SCIUTTO: It's like a world war. They always say it'll be done by Christmas. How many times have we heard that on the special counsel's investigation?

We should note, we were just discussing, and Shimon mentioned it there, that the president is about to leave for a significant international summit.

HARLOW: I mean, in minutes. In minutes.

SCIUTTO: In minutes and, of course, we're going to bring you that live if the president comments on this, when he's going to be meeting the Russian president Vladimir Putin, that meeting now confirmed, a number of others, and he will be going there with this development hanging over his head.

Evan Perez has been covering this for a long time. And Evan, I understand it's your reporting that the president's lawyers and the president himself have been bracing themselves for a new revelation as it were from Michael Cohen.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. Look, they have seen as we reported that Michael Cohen was having these sessions, these interviews with the special counsel, with the prosecutors from the Southern District of New York. We saw pictures of him going into his attorneys' office where they were having these hours and hours of interviews with the prosecutors and so they knew that something was coming and so they were bracing for it.

What they didn't know is exactly what Michael Cohen would be claiming and, look, what we've heard just in the days before today was that they believed that -- you know, I think what their point is, is that Michael Cohen is a liar. They are going to claim that Michael Cohen cannot be believed now, that the president as Pamela has mentioned, you know, he's having to answer these questions about the Trump Tower- Moscow project as part of his written responses to the Mueller investigators and he is telling the truth.

That's what the Trump lawyers are going to claim, that the president has been telling the truth all along and that Michael Cohen now is lying. So we can -- we don't know and we don't have an official response yet from the president's lawyers but I think that gives you an inkling of what we can expect to see because they are going to make the point that Michael Cohen is not to be believed, he lied before, he is an admitted liar, and so that's what you can expect to hear from them.

But I think this is -- look, this is a remarkable development here simply because what we're learning, if Michael Cohen's story is to be believed, this version of the story, it tells us that Donald Trump in 2016 was doing these business deals and it appears that he and his sons and his family did not expect to win this election, so they were setting up businesses, they were setting up businesses projects in Russia for after the election.

[10:10:06] So even as they're getting ready for the Republican convention, he's about to assume the mantle as the nominee for the Republican Party in Cleveland in June -- in July of 2016, he is preparing for after the election. He's preparing for business, big business, in Moscow after the election and the Russians are encouraging it, including someone very close to Vladimir Putin, according to Cohen.

He's talking to someone -- the press secretary for the president, Daniel Peskov. So what this tells us, it gives us a window into what was going on in the Trump campaign and certainly the Trump family in 2016, guys.

HARLOW: OK. And we're going to get more on Peskov and the person named as individual 2 in this information, because that's significant, in a moment. But first I want our lawyers to weigh in on what Evan just told us.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I think Evan is clearly correct that the response is going to be that Michael Cohen is a liar, he's trying to save his own skin. That's going to be the response from the Trump camp. However, one problem Trump is going to have or that Trump lawyers or whoever is responding is going to have is that in this document it's not just Michael Cohen's statements that are referred to.

There are e-mails here about the continuing negotiations over Trump Tower in May of 2016 after the Iowa caucuses, after Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee. So it's one thing to say that Michael Cohen is just a liar, and he's trying to save his own skin, but the Trump forces are going to have to explain if he's making all this up that the deal was still going on, why is there e-mails traffic --

SCIUTTO: And listen --

TOOBIN: -- about the deal in May of 2016?

SCIUTTO: Let's be clear. The president and his supporters call everyone who contradicts the president a liar or there's this new line of argument that even people who have pleaded guilty to lying were forced to lie or that someone like Paul Manafort -- I mean, you've heard this story.

TOOBIN: Right.

SCIUTTO: These are the things that circulate that Paul Manafort was encouraged by the special counsel to lie and that's why he's not cooperating. So, you know, multiple sources. Either they're lying or they're being told to lie or they're being tried to force to lie so you have to take that argument with something of a grain of salt as well.

HARLOW: Paul Callan, your thoughts on that.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. And I think in the end people want to know how will this affect the president directly? Does it create criminality, criminal charges for the president? And I think just looking at this, if what Cohen says is true and he was in contact with the president, which obviously he would have been about a Trump Organization major project in Moscow, did the president suborn perjury? Was he aware that Cohen was going to testify before Congress about the Trump Tower and was he aware that he --

HARLOW: Allow it to happen?

CALLAN: Not only allow it to happen. I mean, it's hard for me to believe that Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, would be appearing before Congress to testify about projects involving the Trump Organization without having discussed what he was going to say with the president.

If the president had such discussions with him, encouraged him to testify falsely about those projects, that's the crime of subordination of perjury which is both a state and a federal crime.

SCIUTTO: No. Listen, in terms of precedent here, you remember when the Trump -- June 2016 Trump Tower meeting came out, I'm not saying this is supporting perjury, but we know that the president participated in putting out a misleading statement as to what that meeting was about, saying it was about adoptions when we know that that's not -- they went into the meeting expecting dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Asha, when you look at Michael Cohen here, he has said publicly many times that he wants to make his name right, that he acknowledges -- excuse me.

Let's interrupt because we have Senator Mark Warner speaking now responding.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- what he told you then versus what we think we know now?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), RANKING MEMBER: I'm not going to comment on that commentary this individual made before our committee. We've kept that confidential but obviously Mr. Cohen was one of the witnesses that we've always wanted to have come back and that need goes up.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you refer his testimony to the special counsel?

WARNER: Again, it's already in the public domain that referrals had been made from our committee to the special prosecutor but we're not going to talk about any individuals.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you still think -- does this make Michael Cohen a less reliable witness for Bob Mueller that he admitted that he lied to your committee?

WARNER: Well, there seems to be a trend here amongst so many of the president's closest allies, that they don't tell the truth, although you've also got a White House that seems on a daily basis not to have its facts straight.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But does has been your investigation at all?

WARNER: We still have a number of witnesses to see and we have a number of witnesses that are some of the key names, key individuals that we -- the chairman and I are working through on how we get them to come back.

[10:15:07] Because just as our investigation has to finish and we owe the American public as much of the truth as we've been able to discovery, it also is just one more reinforcing indication why the Mueller investigation has to be allowed to continue unimpeded, and I just don't believe that the current acting attorney general Mr. Whitaker has the temperament and also the bias to oversee that investigation.

And one of the things we don't know, for example, is we've not been able to hear back from the Justice Department whether Whitaker has ever received an ethics review of whether he should recuse himself from that investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But does this new information learned from Michael Cohen, does that factor in to the people that you will call and will you call some people again?

WARNER: Well, again, I'm not going to get into the witnesses of who we've called, who we continue to intend to call, but as we continue to see this rollout of close Trump allies plead guilty almost always due to their trying to hide their ties with Russia and Russians and the Russians' attempt to infiltrate the Trump campaign, I think there's more story to be told.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If Mueller knows or was able to prove that Cohen lied to your committee, what does that tell you about how much more he knows or where that investigation is right now?

WARNER: Again I think it seems like it was ages ago, but it was only in August when Mr. Cohen decided to work with the special prosecutor. My understanding some level of working together, and I think we've all felt that Michael Cohen has a lot of information that I hope he shares with the special prosecutor and one of the reasons why we think he needs to come back and share it more with the Senate Intelligence Committee.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In his hearing just now Cohen said that he made these false statements to be consistent with Individual 1's messaging, Individual 1 presumably being the president. What does this tell you about the president?

WARNER: Well, I've not read, I just got the headlines from Rachel about what he said, but let's face it, you've got all these closest associates of the president, one after another, pleading guilty, often pleading guilty about their ties to Russia and Russians, and what are they covering up for? And we also have a White House that still seems just obsessed about this investigation.

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?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Paul Manafort yesterday, with the president is still talking about leaving pardons on the table. He hasn't ruled the pardon out for Paul Manafort, hasn't been asked yet to my knowledge about Cohen, but how much does that concern you that these should be -- pardons are just being openly discussed at the White House potentially?

WARNER: That would be a complete abuse of power. The power to pardon has not ever been used to protect a president and his family and, again, we've seen from this White House, again and again, disregard for rule of law. When we see that disregard for rule of law and if we were to go out and pardon some of these individuals that might potentially implicate him or his family, again Congress would have to act.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Knowing that --

WARNER: Thank you, all.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Senator, did you --

HARLOW: All right.

SCIUTTO: We heard Senator Mark Warner there, of course the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and we should note that in all the divisive politics of Washington, the Senate Intel Committee, the Republicans and Democrats, have worked pretty hand in hand on doing a fulsome Russia investigation.

HARLOW: That's a good point. On the Senate side.

SCIUTTO: On the Senate side there.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: And quite a comment there from Mark Warner, saying, I'm paraphrasing to some degree here. If there is no there-there, to this investigation, why did the president's aides keep lying under testimony?

I understand Pamela Brown who's been covering this for some time, something to add on Senator Mark Warner's comments there.

BROWN: Well, just the overall context of what this means, the fact that these are charges filed by the special counsel notably not SDNY because publicly the understanding was that Mueller's team handed this case over to SDNY, the Southern District in New York, to investigate Michael Cohen, but now through this charge and through the admission in court from Michael Cohen's attorney that Cohen has been cooperating with Mueller, this gives you a sense that Robert Mueller's team is very much in the game as it pertains to Michael Cohen and the Russia investigation and how this might impact President Trump.

So I think that that is noteworthy because the initial narrative when all of this happened with Michael Cohen, you remember the raid on his office, on his home, the reporting then was that everything had been handed off to SDNY.

[10:20:12] Now there had been reporting since then that he had talked to Mueller's investigators, but it's significant that now the special counsel has filed this charge that he knowingly misled Congress and it shows that the special counsel is very much involved with Michael Cohen and the Russia investigation and President Trump. So that is certainly significant here.

HARLOW: I'm so glad that you pointed that out to everyone, Pamela Brown. It is incredibly significant. Stand by.

Let's go to our colleague, Kara Scannell, who also joins us from Washington.

After reading through this, a key question in it, Kara, is who Individual 2 named in this information and the significance of Individual 2 as it pertains to the proposal for this Trump Tower in Moscow. What can you tell us?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, so the information only identifies this person as Individual 2, but we know that the key person that Michael Cohen had been collaborating with on building the Trump Tower Moscow project based on e-mails that are already public is this guy name Felix Sater. Now Felix Sater is a very interesting character. He has a long history with the Trump Organization. He helped them build a project in Florida and also the Trump Tower Soho building in New York. He once carried a business card.

Now in depositions Donald Trump has tried to -- in civil depositions relating to, you know, business dealings, Trump has distanced himself from Sater but it's very clear that he's been an integral part of the organization on particular projects. And what we're learning now from this is that Michael Cohen's communications with Sater continued well past January like what Cohen told the Congress, and that he was negotiating with Sater about traveling to Moscow.

He was talking with him in the lobby of the Trump Tower Hotel according to the information in May of 2016 and June of 2016 to try to get this trip off the ground that again is right before the convention, and they're discussing conversations that they're having with the Russian government at the same -- at least in January, which is very, you know, critical on this, too, because Sater has been cooperating with the special counsel's investigation.

He has said that he has turned over every text, every e-mail, and he's a longtime government cooperator. He was charged in the late 1990s in a stock manipulation scheme and has been a government cooperator for decades since then -- Poppy.

HARLOW: All right. So, Kara, Felix Sater not a household name but significant given his cooperation here and the name Individual 2 in this information. "The New York Times" as you'll remember not long ago reported that a series of e-mails from Felix Sater to Michael Cohen and let me quote from one of those e-mails, OK. Quote, "Our boy can become president of the United States and we can engineer it." He went on to write, "I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this. I will manage this process."

And in "The Washington Post" has reported that in a statement to the House Intelligence Committee, Cohen did admit to writing to Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for Putin, in connection with Felix Sater's work.

SCANNELL: That's right, Poppy. And then what we learned from the information today is that Cohen's conversations with Peskov's office continued. He had told Congress that he never heard back from Peskov's office. What we're learning from the information is that he had at least one 20-minute conversation with one of Peskov's assistants and that he had told her that he wanted help to move this project forward.

He wanted to talk to her about financing the project and this is the Russian government and this is occurring during the campaign while Trump is publicly saying he has no ties but Michael Cohen is working with Felix Sater. And there's even another e-mail exchange where Sater is trying to get Cohen on the phone and he says to him, it's about, you know, the president of Russia, and that's why he needs to talk to him.

So there's an ongoing discussion between Cohen and Sater. Sater is of Russian descent. He is trying to maneuver that, you know, Cohen traveling to Moscow or even the candidate after the convention, so this is a very integral part of how they're trying to continue this project while the campaign's going on.

SCIUTTO: Well, it gets to the two points of why this testimony's significant. One, it contradicts the president on this, but two, it raises serious, hard questions about influence, Russian influence, offers of influence, financial interests, et cetera.

So many questions to deal with. We are reading these documents as they come out. Please stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:29:10] HARLOW: All right. Welcome back. If you're just joining us, significant breaking news this morning. Michael Cohen, the president's former personal attorney, the man who said he would take a bullet for the president, has now said in federal court that he lied to Congress about a very, very critical thing and that is when discussions of building a Trump Tower in Moscow extended to the president.

We know he's speaking to reporters right now on the South Lawn. We'll bring that to you as soon as it begins, assuming he's reacting to this. Before we get that, though, let's listen to Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat currently in the House Intelligence Committee, the presumptive chair come January, and his reaction to all of this news this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, if Mr. Cohen misled the Congress about the president's business dealings in Russia deep into the campaign, it also means that the president misled the country about his business dealings and that the Russians were, apparently, attempting to gain financial leverage over the potential president of the United States.