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Mueller In Plea Deal: Michael Cohen's Telling The Truth; Trump Cancels Putin Meeting, Citing Ukraine Crisis, Not Cohen; GOP's Graham; CIA Agrees To Brief Me On Journalist's Murder. Aired 2-2:30pm ET

Aired November 29, 2018 - 14:00   ET

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


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[14:00:15] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, I'm Brook Baldwin. You're watching CNN on a buys, busy Thursday. Here's the blockbuster development in this whole Russia investigation bringing together the two more most forgettable thorns in the president's side, especial council Robert Mueller and --

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UNDINTIFIED MALE: Mr. Cohen, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Cohen, can you just talk to us? Mr. Cohen, just --

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BALDWIN: And the man who has known Trump's deepest secrets for years is his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Today, Cohen signed a plea agreement in court after admitting that he lied to Congress. And, no, this is not the first guilty plea for Cohen. This is the first time, though, that it is with Mueller's prosecutors.

Today's plea deal was about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. Cohen testified the conversations indeed in January of 2016, but court document detail Cohen was talking and coordinating regarding this project as late as June of that year with multiple people including then-presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump.

A short time after Cohen appeared at that plea hearing in downtown Manhattan this morning, the president defended himself by going after Michael Cohen.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was given a fairly long jail sentence and he's a weak person. And by being weak, unlike other people that you have 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. I mean, we were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building. I guess we had in a form it was an option. I don't know what you call it.

We decided -- I decided ultimately not to do it. That would have been nothing wrong if I did do it. If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong. That was my business. So, he's lying, very simply to get a reduced sentence.

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BALDWIN: OK, quick fact check, very few people actually knew of this Trump Tower project in Moscow at the time. It came to light after the presidential inauguration. And here is why Cohen's plea deal with Mueller matters so much.

Among the many questions, it raises the possibility of Trump concealing his business dealings with a foreign power, in this case, Russia. It also raises the questions of whether the Kremlin had leverage over Trump while he was a candidate and as people were voting for him all through the primary season that spring.

And finally, think about what this may mean for the future of the Russia investigation. We know that Cohen has shared information with Mueller's team at least seven different times and through this plea agreement, Mueller has put on court record that Cohen is telling the truth.

We start with the guy who was shouting questions this morning in downtown Manhattan. I have with me CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, getting into specifics of what Cohen said. So what did he say he had testified initially to Congress and where was he lying?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Where he was lying was that he claimed he didn't brief the president on it. He and the president did not have those conversations during the campaign. Well, you know, given specific dates well after the political season. It's clear what he says what he was doing was trying to protect the president here, trying to minimize the impact of the Russia investigation as it related to him running for president.

And what we have again is another instance of Michael Cohen here admitting that he was trying to protect the president. There's a cover-up here, right, a continued cover-up that he was part of to try and protect the president during the campaign from certain details getting out that could potentially affect the campaign and like also to potentially help the Russia investigation. So that is essentially what Michael Cohen admitted to doing.

And the other thing that we learned today, which is really important, because we've been asking a lot of questions about whether or not the special counsel would believe Michael Cohen, whether or not he would have any credibility with the special counsel.

Well, clearly now we know he does. And that is a big deal in terms -- for this investigation and it is something that the president and his legal team and the president's family is certainly concerned about and should be concerned about because there are many more things than Michael Cohen has told the special counsel that we just don't know about.

BALDWIN: Despite Cohen's relationship with the truth in the past and all these 70 hours cumulatively that he spent with the special counsel, there is clearly a reason why about Rob Mueller thinks he is telling the truth. Shimon, thank you so much.

Let me just remind you of also huge take away from today, the plea deal makes clear that the special counsel believes Michael Cohen has been providing to Shimon's point truthful information and they expect him to continue do so. So, let's got to CNN Kara Scannell and Kara take us inside this plea agreement.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, Brooke, we've learned quite a bit of information from the plea agreement hat Michael Cohen has been giving these proffer sections, where he's going in and telling the special counsel's office everything he knows that could be of value, since August -- since August 7th.

[14:05:05] Now, he's been in there seven times and continuing until just a couple of weeks ago. So he's been providing a lot of information to them over all of these meetings. We didn't really know the extent of his cooperation.

And there are also things as part of this deal because he's pleading guilty to one count of making a false statement that he would receive between zero and six months in prison. He still has the other charges that he pled guilty to in August, which he will have to face sentencing on as well. But this deal with the Special Counsel's Office is a short period of time which also shows they're valuing his cooperation.

And it's very interesting in here also, when it outlines the extent of his operation, the willingness of the special counsel to stand up at that sentencing for those other charges, where they're going to say he's been a good cooperator, it says that they would do this on the condition that Cohen continues to respond and provide truthful information regarding any and all matters that the Special Counsel's Office seems to be relevant.

So they are anticipating him to continue to cooperate with them as this investigation unfolds. And we know that Cohen as President Trump's long-time attorney has been in the Trump Organization and by the side of the president for at least 10 years. Brooke.

BALDWIN: Kara, thank you very much. So much to discuss, with me a trio of CNN legal analyst analysts, former FBI special agent, Asha Rangappa, former Federal Prosecutor, Elie Honig, and former prosecutor, Paul Callan.

So, let's just dive right in. Asha to you, first put in perspective, why this Moscow project lie is such a big deal?

ASHA RANGAPPA, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: So, there's a very short- term concrete way that it matters and a big picture way that it matters. The short term is that Trump just turned in his answers to Robert Mueller. He was undoubtedly asked about this Trump Tower timing. If he lied about it, Mueller now has information that proves that he would have lied because he knows that Cohen lied. This is a problem for him.

BALDWIN: Yes. RANGAPPA: And the big picture, as you mentioned earlier, this is about foreign influence and self-dealing. These are the two things that our framers of our constitution wanted to avoid in anybody becoming president of the United States, and it was at play during Trump's campaign and he did not disclose it to the American public --

BALDWIN: National security issue?

RANGAPPA: National security issue, because even though it didn't -- he didn't go through with it, the fact that it was concealed is something that the Kremlin has in its back pocket as something they can hold over his head like a sword of Damocles for the entire presidency.

BALDWIN: Yes. Let's get back to the sword of Damocles and I want to back the key in a second.

RANGAPPA: Yes.

BALDWIN: But to you, guys, just also reminding everyone, I know it feels like forever ago. June of 2016, Trump Tower meeting in New York, also when we as Americans went through that entire primary process, so people were voting, Trump becomes the nominee in May. We know that they're figuring out, you know, the RNC platform. All of this happening, sword of Damocles weaves back in here, maybe a sweetener with Russia, we don't know, right? The timing is important.

ELIE HONIG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTER: It's all about the timing. The dispute here sort of speak is did the Moscow project end in January 16 or did it go to June of 16? Cohen testified in congress, it was over as of January. Now, today, it's revealed that it went to June of 16. Trump then (INAUDIBLE) that Cohen's lying. But he's not lying.

We know it from this court document. They have text. They have e- mails from May and June of 16 showing the Trump org still working with Cohen to try to get approval from the Moscow project. Trump also said, "Who cares, project never happen, what's the difference?" The "who cares" is Trump org needed to get approvals from the Russian state to this project. And so, Trump is in a position deep into the campaign as Asha said of needing to please the Russian government.

BALDWIN: Trump stands in front of the White House today, and he says essentially no big deal, I don't think I was going to win, I'm a businessman, I was doing both at the time, that there would be problem with that. Explain why there would be a problem.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAY ANALYST: Well, there would be a problem for a couple of reasons. First, while this project was going on according to Michael Cohen and believed by Mueller, you had the Republican National Convention occurring in the summer of 2016. A platform was being prepared that had to do with how we treat Russia, how we treat Ukraine.

Now, you have to fast forward to the election itself, what a close election it was with Hillary Clinton. If the voters knew that Trump was trying to work a project in Moscow to help his business while running for president, would that have shifted enough votes to shift the election? I think you can make an argument that it may very well have changed the election.

BALDWIN: Yes.

CALLAN: Point number two is let's go after the first of the year. Trump is sworn in in January of 2017. This testimony that was submitted to congress by Michael Cohen occurred after he was sworn in as president. Now, you have to say to yourself, is it likely that Cohen would have told Trump, who by the way he was on very good terms with at the time, he was his personal attorney negotiating the Stormy Daniels deal and other things, right?

[14:10:06] So, what you have mentioned to Trump, this is what I'm going to tell Congress. It seems to me that you might mention that your personal attorney, to the person you work for. So, did Trump know that he was submitting false testimonies to Congress? Did he aid in a bet in the submission of the false testimony?

BALDWIN: (INAUDIBLE) many questions.

CALLAN: That's it.

BALDWIN: You brought bring of the fact you're so loyal with Trump for so many years and he also had this I was saying with Shimon kind of those relationship with the truth, right? So, why is Mueller so convinced now he is telling the truth?

RANGAPPA: Because he has evidence to back it up. I don't think that Mueller would place all is faith in Michael Cohen's testimony alone. He is pleading guilty to charges of, you know, lying on his taxes and making concealing campaign contributions.

So, he is not a fully trustworthy individual, unless what he says can be corroborated. And this as Elie just said, this means that he has texts, e-mails, other witness testimony, intelligence perhaps that substantiates what Cohen is saying.

HONIG: And prosecutors and federal agents are like obsessed with coop -- with corroborating -- cooperating witnesses, right? It's a big leap of faith to put a cooperator on the stand.

You ride with that person now.

BALDWIN: Yes.

HONIG: And you need to make darn sure that you believe them. And if you want an example this playing up his out of way, look at Paul Manafort. Two days ago, we learned that his cooperation fell apart.

BALDWIN: Yes.

HONIG: Because he lied to Mueller.

BALDWIN: Yes. HONIG: And so they caught him in a lie, he's done. They ripped up his agreement. Cohen now it seems they're ready to ride on.

BALDWIN: How does the fact that just last week we learned that Mueller excuse me -- that Trump had submitted his written answers to Mueller and then flash forward to a week later and we see Michael Cohen downtown at the Federal Courthouse. Yes.

CALLAN: I think this has to do with the timing of this by Mueller, which I think is remarkable. Because remember, Mueller could have done this three weeks from now after the Putin Conference that's coming up, a possible Putin Conference that's coming up.

BALDWIN: Why is he doing it this way?

CALLAN: Well, first of all, he's locked Trump in with those answers you've just talked about.

BALDWIN: Yes.

CALLAN: And now all of a sudden he comes along with Michael Cohen and he submits Michael Cohen's version of what happened.

So, I think what we're seeing is a new, aggressive Mueller, who he's been working by the rules, behind the scenes quietly, not leaking anything.

BALDWIN: Yes.

CALLAN: And there's been talk that Whitaker has been put in place to get rid of Mueller and now what are we seeing Mueller doing? He's more publicly aggressive. He's going to fight Manafort on the issue and he'll demonstrate in court with publicly revealed papers about how Manafort was lying. And in this case of course we see it all laid out in the record, the lies that he told.

BALDWIN: But this isn't just about this Moscow-Trump Tower project, right? Because, we've now confirmed today that Cohen and all of his, you know, 70 hours collectively with Robert Mueller and his team.

He's been talking about other things. What else could he be revealing?

RANGAPPA: He could have information on the Trump Tower meeting. This is the approach. This is the other thread which is about offering dirt on Hillary Clinton's e-mails in exchange for who knows what but we're going to help you win using this damaging information.

He may have information about other players. He was very close to this family. He may know about what role that Don Jr. may have played. Roger Stone, I mean he was involved in this. So, he has a lot of I think damning evidence to potentially provide here.

HONIG: And I'll throw one more under the campaign finance violations. Remember Cohen pledge those in August.

BALDWIN: Yes.

HONIG: And he said during his plea colloquy, I did this weaken for candidate Trump. We then saw "Wall Street Journal" report a couple of weeks ago that seems to corroborate that. That's open game now.

Anything that cut, you know, federal cooperation is all or nothing. Everything that Michael Cohen knows Robert Mueller now knows and can make use of.

BALDWIN: You all have been all excellent all day. Thank you so much for jumping on it and really Michelle.

Coming up next here in the wake of all of this Cohen news, President Trump is pulling the plug on his meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 but not for the reason you may think.

We'll talk to a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about that and much more, next.

Also, does this all now bring the Trump organization and family business further into this Mueller investigation than we've ever really previously known? We'll talk to a journalist who has been covering Donald Trump's finances for almost 30 years. Don't miss a beat today.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

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[14:18:50] BALDWIN: Back to the breaking news. The president's former attorney Michael Cohen has just pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about then-candidate Donald Trump's business dealings in Russia. Cohen has shared information with special counsel, Robert Mueller, at least seven occasions.

So with me now, Washington senator, Ben Cardin, the Democrat from Maryland. He has been the senior member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Cardin, a pleasure and welcome, sir.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), SENIOR MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Welcome, it's good to be with you.

BALDWIN: So, if Michael Cohen is telling the truth, what is the most concerning question for you right now?

CARDIN: Well, we're starting to connect dots. We know that there are a lot of individuals are connected directly with President Trump that were involved in matters involving Russia. So, we're now starting to see a pattern. We've seen this for over now several months. We're getting close to the end of the Mueller investigation, but this is pretty important information and I think it just underscores the importance of letting Mr. Mueller complete his investigation without any outside influence, particularly from the White House.

BALDWIN: As it's connecting the dots, it's also bringing his business into light here, the -- his finances, you know, thrust into investigation thanks to Michael Cohen. Now of course as we all remember was Trump's red line. Will Congress investigate Trumps business?

[14:20:08] CARDIN: Well, not clearly we are seeing connections all around the same time between Mr. Trump's business dealings and Russia, the election of 2016 and Russia, people connected to both of those entities, all being now part of what Mr. Mueller has unveiled through indictments through plea agreements and we'll see through the report. So, yes, it is relevant to the investigation.

BALDWIN: Will you investigate it as a senator --

CARDIN: We'll see what his report shows.

BALDWIN: OK.

CARDIN: I think right now I don't want to see any interference with the Mueller investigation. So I hope Mr. Mueller will certainly be presenting the information to the American people and then clearly Congress is going to have a responsibility to follow up on that.

BALDWIN: Yes. We saw the president this morning as he was heading to Argentina, standing in front of the White House and saying essentially, you know, I thought I was going to lose the election, I'm a businessman, I did nothing wrong. Senator Cardin, if Trump had done a deal, the if, if he had done a deal with the Kremlin while he was running for president, what would your reaction be to that?

CARDIN: Well it depends on what -- how he went about doing it, depends on the transparency of this transaction, depends upon whether any commitments were given by Mr. Trump in exchange for that business deal and whether it was directly related to his campaign. So there's a lot of questions that I'm sure Mr. Mueller is investigating. Such the -- Such the -- and first of all, the president said he didn't have any transactions, now he has transactions. So, we need to get the facts.

It's important that President Trump never released his tax returns during the campaign and as president of the United States. So we don't really have transparency on his business transactions. Yes, it's relevant.

BALDWIN: The Cohen plea deal comes exactly a week after the President turned in his written answers to Robert Mueller, one week. So what do you make of the timing? Do you think at all they could be connected?

CARDIN: Normally you would think that the president's response would be near the end of the investigation. It's clear to me that he wanted to get the president's account on the record before dealing with Mr. Cohen in a formal sense. So --

BALDWIN: Why would he want to do that, sir? Why would he want to do that?

CARDIN: Because there could potentially be inconsistencies and he wants to make sure he has on the record each of their positions. BALDWIN: When you looked just at the last month, the president fired his attorney general. He replaced him with someone who has been openly critical of the special counsel's investigation. Have you spoken with any of your Republican colleagues who voted against the Mueller protection bill just yesterday and, if you have, would today's news give them pause?

CARDIN: We talk about this everyday because it's critically important that Congress pass a statute protecting the Mueller investigation. We should have done it months ago. This president has tried to interfere in this investigation in so many different ways. The firing of the Attorney General Sessions was just the most recent attempt he's made to marginalize the investigation. And then overlooking Mr. Rosenstein as the next likely person, all this is aimed to trying to compromise the investigation.

So, yes, I have talked to my Republican colleagues and I've urged them listen to Senator Flake. Let's bring this bill to the floor, let's protect the Mueller investigation.

BALDWIN: The president left this morning for the G20 where he was scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin. And Trump mentioned the meeting on his way out this morning. Here he was.

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TRUMP: I probably will be meeting with President Putin. We haven't terminated that meeting. I was thinking about it. But we have and seem like to have it. I think it's a very good time to have the meeting. I'm getting a full report on the plane as to what happened with respect to that and that will determine what I'm going to be doing.

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BALDWIN: And then, Senator Cardin, 40 minutes later Trump tweeted this. I'll read it for you. "Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I've decided it would be best for all parties concern to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with Putin. I look forward to a meaningful summit again as soon as this situation is resolved." So, he says now yanking the meeting with Putin is because of Ukraine, do you buy that?

CARDIN: I certainly don't think that's enough what Russia did in regards to Ukraine, first of all, in taking over Crimea, the interference in Eastern Ukraine, the blocking of the ability of Ukraine to get to their ports, all that requires a much stronger response from the -- led by the United states with their allies. It's more than just saying I'm not going to meet with Mr. Putin at G20 meeting. He's going to demonstrate that America stands for free commerce and the integrity in Ukraine's territorial integrity.

BALDWIN: But senator --

CARDIN: It takes more than just cancelling a meeting. BALDWIN: Again, though, given everything we've heard from this president and everything we haven't heard with regard to any conversation he's had in the past with Putin and now that he was looking forward to the meeting and a blink later he's suddenly not meeting with him, which he says this over Ukraine. What I'm asking you, Senator Cardin, do you believe him?

[14:25:18] CARDIN: I believe he doesn't have a policy and he changes his opinions very frequently. So, it's uncertain us to what he's going to do next. There's no question about that. But it's very clear what Russia did in Ukraine. And it's very clear that Mr. Putin will push it as far as he can go if he doesn't see a resolve from the West led by the United States.

My point is it's more than cancelling a G20 meeting. I don't know if they'll meet with Mr. Putin or not being Mr. Putin. But it's got to be a clear message that United States is going to demand the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the free commerce on the seas.

BALDWIN: Last question just briefly on Saudi Arabia and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi your Republican colleague Lindsey Graham, had said he had wanted the CIA briefing. He says just today that they will be briefing me. Do you know is this CIA, do you if Gina Haspel will be coming to the Hill and briefing all of you senators?

CARDIN: We certainly have asked for that and her appearance before the Senate was blocked yesterday. She should have been there. We were having a briefing on Yemen and the intelligence community assessment was critically important. And it was very clear that the Trump Administration did not want the United States Senate to get that information.

Certainly Senator Graham's entitled to that information but every United States senators entitled to know the intelligence information about the accountability of the crown prince in regard to this tragic death of the journalist.

BALDWIN: Senator Benjamin Cardin thank so much your time. I appreciate that.

Coming up next, we now know three key areas where the special counsel is focusing much of his attention. Does it paint a clearer picture of how the investigation is about to unfold?

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