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Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty to Lying About Trump Tower Moscow. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired November 29, 2018 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And, today, the man who wants vowed to take a bullet for Trump signed a plea agreement in court after admitting that he lied to Congress.
And I know that, no, this is not the first guilty plea for Cohen, but this is the difference. This is the first clean deal with Mueller's prosecutors. Today's deal was about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow.
Cohen testified -- quote -- "The Moscow project ended in January of 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the company." That's what he told Congress.
However, court details -- court documents detail Cohen was talking and coordinating about the project as late as June of that very same year with multiple people, including presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump.
A short time after the plea hearing today, the president defended himself standing in front of the White House by going after Michael Cohen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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 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 would call it. We decided -- I decided ultimately not to do it.
There 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.
QUESTION: Did you tell him to lie?
TRUMP: So he's lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BALDWIN: Fact-check. Very few people knew of this Trump Tower Moscow project at the time. It actually came to light after the presidential inauguration.
And here is why Cohen's plea deal with Mueller really matters. Among the multitude of questions here, 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 during the primaries.
And, finally, think about the deal's impact on the future of this entire Russia investigation. Michael Cohen has now shared information with Mueller's team at least seven different times. And throughout the plea agreement, Mueller has put on court record that Cohen is telling the truth.
Let's go straight to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez.
And, Evan, give me the details about what Cohen said he did after January of 2016, when he said initially that the Moscow deal failed to go through.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Brooke.
So the Iowa caucuses are in February. And according to Michael Cohen, one of the reasons why he made these false statements previously was because he was trying to align his statements, what he testified to Congress, to align it with what candidate Trump and then later President Trump had said about his ties to Russia, that there were no such ties, that this entire investigation was a hoax, that there was no reason for it, there was no good reason for it to be investigated.
And according to Michael Cohen now, after January, he not only continued to brief the president, the then candidate and now president, multiple times -- we don't know exactly how many times -- but he also briefed members of the family, people in the Trump Organization and, according to the documents, at least someone, one person a senior person inside the campaign.
That's a big deal simply because, as you said, the president -- and as the president just pointed out, he had repeatedly said that he had nothing to do with Russia. And, as a matter of fact, what the president just said on the -- on the South Lawn there before departing for Argentina is in contradiction with something his own son told members of Congress when he testified last year.
Don Jr. said that he didn't really remember much about the Trump Tower project in Moscow, that, as a matter of fact, he was only learning some of the details as a result of news coverage which happened last year.
So the president's comments that everybody knew about this, it's not really exactly true, if you believe his son, if you believe Michael Cohen, if you believe the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
BALDWIN: So we saw the president on the South Lawn as he headed down to the G20. Then we heard from the president's attorney Rudy Giuliani responding to all this news today. What did Rudy Giuliani say, Evan?
PEREZ: Well, Rudy, as you know, a lot of different things to say -- one of the things, obviously, is he says that Michael Cohen is a liar. He said, of course it's no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress, which is also a little bit of a problem, because if you see the president, he's saying that Michael Cohen is lying now, that he wasn't lying then.
So that's another part of this. But Rudy also -- Rudy Giuliani also says that some of this stuff really was a result of information that the Trump Organization itself turned over.
And he also, Brooke, called attention to the fact that Robert Mueller and his investigators are dropping this bombshell right before the president goes on an international trip.
If you remember, right before the president went to Helsinki to have a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, we learned of these charges against Russian spies from the GRU, the military intelligence service. So Rudy Giuliani is calling attention to the fact that it appears, he believes, that Robert Mueller is trying to sabotage the president and his conduct of international relations.
BALDWIN: Evan, thank you.
With me now, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.
And, Gloria, how does Giuliani's response square with what Cohen told the court, especially after the president today called Cohen a liar?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Giuliani's on team Trump. And team Trump is sticking to its story about what happened with Trump Tower Moscow.
The president, as Evan was just saying, all throughout the campaign focused on trying to win Iowa, completely saying to everybody, I have never done any business deals with Moscow, except maybe selling a piece of property in Palm Beach to a wealthy Russian, and I did the Miss Universe Pageant, and that was it.
In the meantime, this was continuing. And Michael Cohen and the president at that time were on the same page. Fast-forward to today. They are no longer on the same page. And Michael Cohen is saying, look, I'm telling you the truth here. It didn't end in January. It ended in June.
I mean, I actually wrote a story on this letter of intent back in September of 2017, where I was told that it ended in January, and not in June. And I was told that it ended because it never went anywhere, just as the president was saying today. And, of course, that turns out not to be truthful.
And this is damaging to the president because of what you exactly pointed out before, Brooke, which is, the Russians knew this. Did they have any kind of leverage then over candidate Trump, someone who could be President Trump, I think is a really, really big question here.
And I guarantee you, the members of Congress are going to say, OK, let's see your tax returns. I want to see more. I want to know more.
BALDWIN: Yes. Senator Ben Cardin, I talked to him last hour, making that point precisely.
BALDWIN: This is more than this Moscow project, though.
BALDWIN: The other big piece of news is that, with Cohen's plea deal with Mueller, you have been learning that this goes well beyond this Moscow Trump Tower.
Pamela Brown and I have been doing some reporting on that today. And we know that Michael Cohen has had 70 hours of discussions, 7-0. That's a lot.
BALDWIN: It is.
BORGER: And so that is about a lot more than Trump Tower Moscow.
And possible topics that have been thrown out there are the questions about whether Michael Cohen ever discussed a pardon with the president, whether the president knew about WikiLeaks in advance, or whether he knew about the Don Jr. meeting in Trump Tower in advance.
And we know from Dana Bash's reporting yesterday that the -- that the that the Trump Tower meeting, at least, is a question that Mueller put to Donald Trump in writing.
So you could see where -- where Michael Cohen could be a very handy witness for Bob Mueller, although, as you know, he's not the most credible person in the world. Right? So there is that.
But Michael Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for the president, could now become a Brutus for him.
BALDWIN: Right. Right. Well, as you point out, with the 70 hours, obviously, there's a reason. There's been cooperating witnesses for Mueller to believe that Cohen is indeed telling the truth.
BALDWIN: Gloria, thank you. BORGER: Sure.
BALDWIN: Let's go a little further here.
With me, Berit Berger, former federal prosecutor in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York.
And, so, Berit, to you, just big-picture it for me. Why is this Moscow Trump Tower lie so significant?
BERIT BERGER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Look, I think it's significant on a few levels.
The first reason it's significant is because everyone was lying about it. You know something, as a former prosecutor, is important when people have to try to get their stories straight about it. If there was no issue with it, if this was all above the board, then why were people lying?
Why did Michael Cohen have to go in front of Congress and say something totally different than he's saying in court now? So that raises a lot of red flags. And it makes us know that there was something that people were trying to keep hidden.
The other reason that I think it's so significant is because, as you mentioned earlier, this is a politician who we have no insight into his finances. We have never seen his tax returns, right? It is this black hole.
So we don't know what kind of conflicts there are. So to the extent that we're now hearing information that there was this ongoing business relationship with Russia that we have had really no insight into, that's significant for everyone. And that's certainly something that I feel like the American people should be worried about.
BALDWIN: On the lying piece, Michael Cohen, someone who's had a loose relationship with the truth, now all of a sudden we're hearing from Mueller that he believes he is telling the truth.
Tell me why he knows that.
BERGER: Why Mueller knows that Michael Cohen...
BERGER: So he's not going to take Michael Cohen's word for it, right?
You have heard that he's met with him, they say 70 hours. You can see from the plea agreement it actually details the number of proffer sessions that they have had together starting back in August, ending just November 20. So they have been meeting regularly.
This is pretty standard procedure before you before you sign up a cooperating witness, before they actually pled guilty. But this is not how Mueller knows that he's telling the truth.
The way he would know he's telling the truth is by comparing it with the other evidence he has. We know that there are other witnesses that are cooperating. We know they have documents, they have e-mails, they have financial records that they have subpoenaed. They have been having a long grand jury investigation for months now.
So it's all in that corroboration. With somebody like Michael Cohen, they're not going to take his word for it. They're going to test every single thing that comes out of his mouth to make sure that it's backed up by the other evidence.
BALDWIN: Just last week, President Trump submitted his written answers to the Mueller team. And now we see what happens, what happened with Michael Cohen. What do you make of the timing? One week later?
BERGER: Yes, I don't know that I'm going to read too much into the timing of that.
I mean, as I was saying, he -- Michael Cohen has had a number of different proffer sessions. These take time. They're tying up a lot of loose ends. I don't know that this was so calculated that he was pleading a week after those.
My guess is that Cohen is somebody they have been trying to get in a position that they felt confident enough to sign him up to a cooperation agreement. The fact that it happened after the written agreement, maybe there's something significant. It could just be a matter of sort of the timing of what it took to get him ready to plead guilty.
BALDWIN: I had heard from other lawyers saying, oh, perhaps they wanted to lock down Trump's answers, and then have Cohen do what he did. But your guess is as good as mine.
BERGER: Right, perhaps. We will find out.
BALDWIN: Berit Berger, thank you very much for weighing in on all of that.
BERGER: Of course.
BALDWIN: Coming up next, one of the other major questions in all this, does this now bring the Trump family business further into the Mueller investigation than we thought?
A Donald Trump biographer will join me next.
And President Trump has now abruptly canceled his G20 sideline meeting with President Putin of Russia, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. We have details on that and the Kremlin's response.
You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [15:16:46]
BALDWIN: We are back with more breaking news. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.
President Trump coming out today on the defense after his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen admitted to lying about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. Cohen now says discussions about the project lasted well into Trump's 2016 campaign, something Cohen had previously denied.
Even so, the president maintains he did nothing wrong.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We had a position to possibly do a deal to build a building of some kind in Moscow. I decided not to do it. The primary -- and there could have been other reasons. But the primary reason, it was very simple. I was focused on running for president.
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 gone back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: CNN contributor Michael D'Antonio knows Trump more than most. He is a biographer. His book is called "The Truth about Trump."
And Michael D'Antonio, welcome back.
Let me -- when you saw a Trump there on the South Lawn this morning and in his response today, you know, saying there was a good chance I wouldn't have won the election, what were you thinking?
MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, heaven help me, Brooke, I now know how this fellow thinks, because right before he made that statement, I texted one of your producers and said, you know, he was keeping his options open. He didn't think he was going to win.
So, the presidential campaign, I think, started out as a marketing endeavor. This was almost a ploy. And as the president has said subsequently, it just picked up momentum. And I think, as late as May, or even going into the general election, he didn't think he was going to win.
I think he was as shocked as anybody else when he actually did prevail in the Electoral College. So he was keeping his options open. He really doesn't ever believe that he does something wrong. So, the idea of, well, I'm going to continue to negotiate a deal in Russia as I'm running for president of the United States of America, well, of course I will. I'm Donald Trump.
BALDWIN: So, keeping some irons in the fire, as it were, which, if you talk to a former FBI special agent, as I have today, could have been a matter of national security.
But, that aside, we know that, you know, Michael Cohen today explained that the reason why he lied to Congress was because, one, he was loyal to Trump, and, two, because of political -- political messaging, how this would have -- how this would have looked.
You know the relationship between these two men. Can you just talk to me about the level of loyalty Michael Cohen had for Donald Trump?
D'ANTONIO: It was profound.
The president, then businessman Donald Trump introduced me to Michael Cohen with the explanation that: This is my most trusted adviser. He's the guy who executes sensitive missions for me. He knows everything. And you can take what he tells you to the bank.
So, this gives the lie to the president's suggestion now -- and also coming from all the people around him -- that, oh, Michael Cohen is a liar, he can't be trusted.
I actually believe that Michael Cohen only lied in the service of Donald Trump. I think that, otherwise in his life, he was a fairly up-front guy, pretty reputable.
He lied for Donald Trump because that's where his bread was buttered, but also I think there was a personal relationship between the two of them that was very strong.
BALDWIN: Which is why it's also equally profound that, of all people, he's the guy who's flipped and is now cooperating with the special counsel.
Let me read for you a specific line within this court filing, Michael.
So -- quote -- "Cohen discussed the status and progress of the Moscow project with Individual 1," then candidate Trump, "on more than three occasions, Cohen claimed to the committee, and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the company about the project."
Michael, family members, who -- what family members might have been brief? What -- who would have been involved in a deal like that?
D'ANTONIO: Well, the people most likely to be involved would have been Ivanka Trump and Donald, Jr. This is not the kind of project that Eric would have had much to do with.
But this, I think, is the president's nightmare, the idea that his daughter and his son could be drawn into this web, and not only smeared, but perhaps subject to criminal investigation, that the whole family enterprise could be threatened by all of this.
No one knows for certain how rich the Trumps are or how much equity they have in their various endeavors. But this is a marketing organization first and foremost, and anything that destroys the brand is bad for the bottom line.
And we're now looking at his children. They're going to need to lawyer up, and they could face consequences that aren't even imagined right now.
BALDWIN: Michael D'Antonio, thank you so much.
D'ANTONIO: Thanks, Brooke.
BALDWIN: Good see you.
More on this. With the chaos of the week and the investigation, it is clear there are at least three areas in which Robert Mueller is looking into the president directly. We will break that down for you.
And after word of Cohen's courtroom bombshell, Trump cancels meetings to meet -- canceled plans to meet with Vladimir Putin. He says it's because of Ukraine, but is that just a really convenient excuse?
BALDWIN: Special counsel Robert Mueller has been dropping bombshell after bombshell since receiving President Trump's written answers as part of this Russia investigation, right? So that was last week.
Today, the president's longtime attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, admitted to lying to Congress about plans to build this Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen originally said those discussions ended in January of '16. And it turns out they lasted well into June of that year, around the time President Trump became the official Republican nominee.
And just a couple of days ago, this. The president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was also lying to federal investigators repeatedly and in turn breached a plea deal with Mueller.
CNN's Alex Marquardt is with me now.
And, Alex, with each indictment and plea deal, we get these glimpses of how much Mueller really knows, and it's a lot. Can -- he's zeroing in on all the president's men.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: All the president's men, Brooke.
At least this week, it feels like, every passing day, there's something new on some member of the president's once inner circle. So let's take a look and break down what we do know Mueller to be chasing when it comes to Russia and Trump.
And let's start with Roger Stone and his relationship with WikiLeaks. Now, according to draft court papers that we obtained, Stone is accused by his longtime friend Jerome Corsi of telling him to contact the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and to -- quote -- "get the e- mails." Now, Stone denies this, but if there is a proven link, so cooperation, between WikiLeaks and Roger Stone, that would then create a straight line from the Russian military hackers who got those Democratic e- mails to Trump's inner circle. All right?
So, next, we have got Donald Trump Jr. and his infamous meeting at Trump Tower that also included others, including Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the senior-most level of the Trump campaign. They met with that Russian lawyer who was connected to the Kremlin to try to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.
We know that Mueller is chasing this because he asked about it on a long list of written questions for President Trump. CNN has learned that President Trump responded to those questions, responded to Mueller, saying he knew nothing about that meeting beforehand.
And, Brooke, finally, today's big breaking news, Michael Cohen and the Trump Tower Moscow project -- project -- yes.
So he was found -- he pleaded guilty today for lying to Congress. We learned that Cohen kept Trump, who was then the presumptive Republican nominee for president, abreast, updated of the developments on the Trump Tower Moscow deal well into the campaign, until around mid-2016.
And we know that Cohen tried to e-mail the Kremlin press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, about permissions for that project that would be needed, but he never heard back from Peskov at that point.
So, to recap all these overlapping business and political events, let's take a look at this timeline. So, you have got the plans for Trump Tower Moscow. That was discussed as late as June 2016.