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Cohen Lied to Congress; Cohen Plea Deal; Panetta Talks About Cohen Lies. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired November 29, 2018 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:00:05] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.
And we begin with the breaking news bombshell in the Russia investigation. President Trump's former right hand man pleads guilty to lying to Congress about discussions involving a potentially lucrative business deal. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen was mobbed by reporters as he left the federal courthouse in New York today. During a hearing, Cohen admitted making false statements about plans for Trump Tower Moscow, a proposed project.
Now, according to court documents, Cohen told Congress, quote, the Moscow project ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the company. That being the Trump Organization. Well, he now admits that, quote, the Moscow project was discussed multiple times within the company and did not end in January 2016. In fact, he says, discussions continued as late as June 2016.
According to his plea deal, quote, Cohen made the false statements to give the impression, the false impression, that the Moscow project ended before the Iowa caucus and the very first primary.
Well, here's why that's important. It means that while then candidate Trump was running for president, and as people were voting, he was discussing a possible deal with Russia. As he left for the G-20 Summit today, the president defended those discussions and he blasted Cohen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is a weak person and what he is 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 it in a form (ph). It was an option. I don't know what you'd 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. 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. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Well, the president says the project was widely known, but actually the proposed deal only came to light long after it was canceled and after he took office.
The other major development is that Cohen has reached a cooperation agreement with Robert Mueller's office. That agreement extends beyond Trump Tower Moscow. It could include other areas under scrutiny. And this is a deal that hinges on Cohen continuing to, quote, respond and provide truthful information.
CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz is outside of the federal courthouse in New York.
Shimon, how significant is all of this and what more have we learned today?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, it's hugely significant. You have to think about it, look at it this way, you have now someone who was extremely close to the president, was the president's personal attorney during some significant investigations, during some significant matters, for the second time, coming into a courtroom and saying basically that he was trying to protect the president, Donald Trump, from any kind of legal exposure, from any kind of criminal investigation.
You had him come in here into a New York courthouse where he said that he was trying to protect the president in the Stormy Daniels matter. You now have him coming in here and saying that he's trying to protect the president in this investigation of possible Russian collusion, possible Russian ties.
So, no doubt about it, that this is going to be hugely significant. Michael Cohen admitting that he lied to congressional investigators when he was asked about the Moscow deal and continued to do so all in an effort to protect the president of the United States. He said he was trying to minimize the links between the Moscow project and Trump and that is why he lied to members of Congress.
KEILAR: And, Shimon, what did Michael Cohen's lawyers say about his continues cooperation with the special counsel?
PROKUPECZ: Right. So when Michael Cohen left court, he said nothing. He walked straight. You know, obviously, all of the reporters here, we circled him, we tried to get Michael Cohen to say something. He would not say anything.
But significant what his lawyer chose to say was that Michael Cohen is cooperating and going to continue to cooperate. And it's very clear that there is still a very much long-term, ongoing investigation between the special counsel and also which a lot of people have assumed there is a lot of concern out of what the Southern District of New York, that is the U.S. attorney's office here in New York, knows and what exactly are they investigating that could potentially cause major problems for Donald Trump, his family, for the organization. Those investigations seem to be continuing here.
KEILAR: All right, Shimon, thank you for giving us the latest there.
The other huge headline today, we now know that Michael Cohen has a plea deal with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. And this is hugely significant because Cohen is the same man who once said he'd take a bullet for President Trump.
[13:05:06] For more now I want to bring in senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown, and CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger. They have been doing excellent reporting on this.
And, Gloria, we -- knowing that Michael Cohen has spent 70 hours with the special counsel, you know, maybe it's not surprising that they didn't just discuss Trump Tower Moscow. But, truly, we now know this is the tip of the iceberg.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely the tip of the iceberg. Michael Cohen was in a lot of trouble and, of his own volition, reached out to the special counsel and said I have some things I need to tell you. And over those 70 hours, they clearly discussed a lot of topics. And these are all topics that could be potentially damaging to the president, particularly since the timing of this is interesting, which is that the president has already filled out his interrogatories that he got from Bob Mueller's office. You have to assume that some of these other topics were included in the questions. And, you know, Pam has done some reporting on what the other topics might be.
KEILAR: Yes, what -- what are they? And we may not know all of them, right, but there's also possibilities. But what do we know?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, there are several areas where we know Robert Mueller is interested in as it pertains to Donald Trump and where Michael Cohen could be helpful. Some of the questions that went to the president included whether he had advanced knowledge of the Don Junior meeting with Russians at Trump Tower. Our reporting is he said, no, he didn't.
Also, WikiLeaks, whether he had advanced knowledge or knew of anyone on the campaign with advanced knowledge that WikiLeaks would dump John Podesta's e-mails. And again, according to our reporting, he said no.
But Michael Cohen could very well be shedding light on some of these other areas that we know Robert Mueller has been interested in. Also whether there's been any discussions between the president and Michael Cohen about pardoning him, whether the president tried to have undue influence. We know there was, at one point, a legal defense agreement between the two sides, Cohen's side and Trump's side. That broke down, obviously. But I'm sure that Michael Cohen once -- sorry, Robert Mueller is interested in an array of topics beyond just Trump Tower Moscow. And it's no coincidence that this happened after the president and his team turned in the responses to the questions from Mueller.
KEILAR: So that his written answers could not be influenced by this new information, right? BROWN: Right.
BROWN: They're locked in now. They are locked in. And they essentially went in blind with the answers on this because they had no idea what Cohen was talking about to investigators.
BORGER: Right. I was going to say, there's been a split. I mean, and, you know, at one point the president invited Michael Cohen to Mar-a- Lago after the Stormy Daniels' case and, you know, he's my good friend, he's my personal lawyer. And suddenly, today, we hear, he's weak and he's a liar, et cetera, et cetera. So it's Shakespearian because somebody who said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump --
BORGER: Is now pointing the gun at him, honestly.
And so I think there's a -- this has got to unravel to a great degree because we don't know what was in those 70 hours that he spent answering questions.
BROWN: Well, exactly. But what -- what stuck out to me was on the plea agreement papers, they said that -- Robert Mueller's team said it would reveal the exact scope and nature of the agreement. So there is more to come.
BROWN: And no doubt this is not a good day for the president and his lawyers.
KEILAR: We are going -- and we'll find that out. All right, I'm going to have you guys stand by for me. Michael Cohen's surprise appearance in court today left many lawmakers with more questions than answers.
(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.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: You've got all these close 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?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Well, they are careful to use the words "misleading" and "covering up," but not the word "lying."
I want to introduce our other guests here. We have former Federal Election Commission general counsel Larry Noble. We have former federal prosecutor Laura Coates joining us, along with Gloria and Pamela as well.
Laura, when you hear what Shimon was reporting, when you hear about the cooperation now extending beyond Trump Tower Moscow, what is standing out to you?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The chain reaction that took place after the president of the United States handed in his answers. You had Paul Manafort now established as a liar.
KEILAR: Can I -- can I just ask you, your -- so he's handed -- these are -- he is stuck to these. These are under oath.
COATES: Yes. They might as well have been written in the pavement, you know, we pavement.
COATES: He has written them down. They will solidify. They will form the foundation for what he says going forward. They will now compare what he says in writing under oath to what goes down now.
And they use that. They waited, of course, and probably strategically so. Now they know that Paul Manafort was a liar. Now they know and they can say that Michael Cohen somehow was misleading the Congress and now he's ready to plea. They have set this up particularly perfectly on this issue.
[13:10:04] What stands out to me, of course, is the notion of the timing of it. The timing of all of these things. The big question in the Russia collusion investigation has always been, why would Russia feel that their was a campaign receptive to this overture to try to influence or intimidate or try to somehow change the outcome of the 2016 election? Why do you think they had a safe haven in the president's campaign?
Well, now you're seeing financial ties. And when you follow that money trail, you can answer the question of, perhaps there is somebody who is beholden to Russian influence and you have Michael Cohen saying, it didn't just take place when he was the candidate, it took place when he was the president of the United States, answering questions of, what happened in Helsinki? Why is the president not been -- or been reluctant to actually condemned the Russians, condemn things like WikiLeaks, et cetera. Well, maybe you know because he, in fact, had some self-gain.
KEILAR: A conflict of interest, which is the big question here, Larry.
LARRY NOBLE, FORMER GENERAL COUNSEL, FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION: Right. It is clearly a conflict of interest. I mean we've known for a while that he's had these connections with Russia. And it continues. And it gets deeper and deeper. And when he says that he can continue doing business when he's running for office, that's technically true, but most candidates don't because it's very tricky because people can use your business as a way to influence you while you're running and it can become an illegal campaign contribution.
So, now, he didn't accept anything as far as we know at this point. But the fact that Russia was willing to talk to him about the Trump Towers and was willing to do -- at least make noises about doing business with him and he was trying to do business with them is really disturbing. He was really trying to keep these connections going.
KEILAR: And this really brings, Pamela, the timeline of when we know, according to Michael Cohen, that he was still engaging with President Trump on a business deal in Moscow. It brings it very close to the timing of the president becoming the nominee, but also being privy to information about Russian meddling in the election, right?
BROWN: It's all around sort of that same timeframe when the DNC e- mails were coming out and so forth. And what's critical here, and what you read in the court documents is, Michael Cohen says that he's claimed that it wrapped up in January 2016 because he wanted to make it clear it was before the Iowa caucuses. Well now we found out it was going on after the Iowa caucuses, once Trump was a presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
And so I think also it's just really interesting to see the statement from the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the president himself, coming out and trying to act like they've been open and transparent about this, which is simply not the case. We didn't find out about this --
BORGER: And he's president.
KEILAR: Sure. He said that we were -- we were very open. What is he talking about, Gloria?
BROWN: Which is just --
BORGER: No, they were not. No, they were not open. I mean I did the story on this Trump Tower Moscow letter of intent in September of 2017 and I was told that it was shut down because they didn't want to mix -- you know, they knew the president was running and it wasn't going anywhere anyway and so this was before the Iowa caucuses, they wanted to shut it down.
In the meantime -- in the meantime, the president was out there on the campaign trail and we know it's not a crime to lie to journalists, but the president was there out on the campaign trail saying I have -- I know of no business dealings with Russia. I've never had any business dealings. I'm not -- you know, maybe I sold somebody a house in Palm Beach, but that's it. That's the extent of it, when he very well knew that they were in negotiations to get I -- and I would say to tell you this was a sweetheart deal they were -- they were being proposed for this Trump Tower Moscow. It was a branding deal. They just put their name on it. There was a spa that was going to be named after Ivanka Trump. They would make a lot of money up front on it. Put -- and putting nothing in. And they wanted it. They wanted it. But they said they shut it down when, as we now know from Michael Cohen today, they did not.
COATES: You know, the luxury of being able to back petal and correct is over for the president of the United States. As you say, it's one thing to lie to the media, and perhaps the American people. Once it's in writing, now I am using you as your own foil. And I'm glad you mentioned things about the sweetheart deal or other members of the family because, remember, Michael Cohen was not that critical in the campaign, but he has been critical, I'm sure he'll be called a coffee boy at this point, but critical, of course, in the family business, which involves other people aside from Donald Trump. Which involves issues (ph) of confidence (ph) that you know well about for other members of the family, financial disclosures, ethical conundrums, et cetera. So this has expanded far beyond perhaps just the investigation of the campaign and now the entire Trump enterprise.
KEILAR: What is the bigger concern to you, Larry? Is it the knowing that you had a candidate who was engaged in business with a foe of the United States, questioning whether he is someone who, once he's president, can therefore put forth in an unbiased nature U.S./Russia policy, or is the concern the cover-up? Is the concern that people have been lying about it? Is the concern, why are they lying about it? What don't we know? What -- what is it to you?
[13:15:03] NOBLE: Well, it's both of those and one other thing. It's the fact that he doesn't seem to understand or care that there's a difference between being president of the United States and being the chief of the Trump Organization. And even his statement now, that he could have run his business while he was running the campaign, shows a real lack of understanding about what being president is. He stood up there in January, after he -- after he went into that big press conference when he had those fake files in front of him and he said he was going to divest himself, or at least put them -- put the -- all the interests in with his children. He didn't really do that. He still gets reports and all that stuff.
So what really bothers me about this, though it's very consistent, is that he sees his business interests coming before everything else. He is willing to do whatever is necessary for his business interests. His statement that, well, I may not have run -- I may not have won and therefore I could keep my business going, well, you could stop your business for six months while you're running, or for a year while you're running so you don't get those conflict because --
KEILAR: Or wall yourself off.
NOBLE: Right, or wall yourself off.
NOBLE: And he never did that. And then -- so what it leads to is this feeling that he has a real conflict of interest. He is more concerned about his business than he is about what else is going on in the government, about his role with the people, and what else is going on now. What does he feel he owes the Russians now? I think we can guess by things we're seeing, but -- so it's really disturbing, this whole idea that he doesn't get his role as president, he doesn't get his role as candidate, he doesn't get what it means to have a conflict of interest.
KEILAR: Let's listen to the president and to Michael Cohen, because they repeatedly denied that there were any deals with Russia. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals in Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we've stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia.
MICHAEL COHEN: There's no relationship. The last time that there was any activity between the Trump Organization -- actually it really wasn't even the Trump Organization, it was the Miss Universe Pageant was held in Moscow --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When was that?
COHEN: Six years ago.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: All right, that is stunning, Gloria, when you read what Michael Cohen is saying now about the timing of even discussing a nominee Trump visiting Russia after the convention in connection with Trump Tower Moscow.
BORGER: Right. So this is all going on while I and others were being told, through this letter of intent and our own reporting, that it was shut down because, a, they didn't have the connections, b, they didn't have the land. They didn't have the financing. And why would Michael Cohen continue with a deal that clearly wasn't going to go anywhere. Plus the fact that you're heading into the Iowa caucuses and now they were completely focused on the -- on the campaign.
You know, taking a step back for a minute, you had -- I think we all would understand that the Trump people never figured they were going to win. So they were continuing to operate the business as if they were going to go back to it in a minute. And they didn't get back to it in a minute because they never ended it. And so they did continue and the president was publicly lying about that. And Michael Cohen was saying, you know, this was ended. I had no real connections to Putin. I had to write an e-mail to Putin's spokesman blind. He said he never received a response on that, right, Pam?
BROWN: But he did, according to the court documents.
BORGER: But he did. He did receive a response.
So now as we're unwinding --
KEILAR: Multiple responses.
BROWN: And now -- now --
BORGER: Multiple, yes. It's -- it -- we're unwinding it, we're realizing that we were -- we were told whoppers.
KEILAR: I'm going to have all of you stand by just for a moment here.
The former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, is going to join me live to respond to this news.
Plus, it's only been a few weeks since the president fired his attorney general. So what did Acting AG Matt Whitaker know about these developments beforehand?
And the president abruptly cancelling his meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aries. He is not citing the Cohen news.
Stand by. This is CNN's special coverage.
[13:23:27] KEILAR: A bombshell today in federal court as President Trump's former lawyer admits to lying to Congress. Michael Cohen pleading guilty to giving a false statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee about conversations that he had with then candidate Trump about a building project in Moscow. Now, Cohen said that he last talked to Trump about this deal before the 2016 Iowa caucuses. That was in January of 2016. Actually, it was in June of 2016, after Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
A short time after today's bombshell drop, President Trump spoke to reporters to claim that he thinks Cohen is lying.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's very simple, he's got himself a big prison sentence and he's trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story. Now, here's the thing, even if he was right, it doesn't matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Joining me now to talk about this, we have former CIA director and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with us.
Sir, thank you so much for being on today.
And as you're watching this news break, what does it tell you that Michael Cohen lied about Trump pursuing business in Russia while he was the candidate, even the presumptive nominee, that he lied about his communication with Trump and the Trump family about that project and he went as far as to conceal that he was planning for Trump to visit Russia after the Republican Convention?
LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY AND CIA DIRECTOR: Well, you know, the -- I think this entire case has always been about following the money. We've always known that there were ties between the Trump Organization and Russia in some ways. We were always concerned about not getting his tax returns revealed, which would have told us more about whether or not that relationship was there.
[13:25:21] But the plea today by Cohen tells us that there is a financial connection here and that, you know, Donald Trump was operating as a New York developer, not really focusing on whether or not he would or would not be the president, he was focusing on making money, which is what New York developers do. And so he was trying to work that deal and, obviously, whether it panned out or not, we'll find -- you know, we'll find that out in the course of this investigation.
But the reality is that in following the money, it's clear that there were ties between the Trump operation and Russia. And that could raise serious implications with regards to the other issues that the special counsel is looking at.
KEILAR: And -- sure. And we don't know all of what that is. We just know that Robert Mueller knows a whole lot more than we do, which is clear.
But it's clear from what we've learned today that President Trump has been way more connected to Russia than we understood. Maybe some suspected this, but now there is evidence of how connected he has been.
Some people in his corner will say, well, of course he -- he's a businessman. But why is it to someone like you, who has dedicated their life largely to public service, who has put that public service first, why is that so -- why does that go so against this exposure sort of to Russia here against the call to public service? Because some will look at this, they'll say, hey, this isn't illegal, but this is a conflict of interest, it's really bad. Why is that so bad?
PANETTA: Well, you know, it goes to the line between being a New York developer and trying to make money any way you can and trying to get money any way you can, and being president of the United States. As president of the United States, your responsibility is to protect the national security of this country. And when it comes to dealing with Russia, an adversary of the United States, it's critically important that a president be able to be objective in dealing with Russia.
We've seen Russia get much more aggressive lately, whether it's the Ukraine, whether it's Syria, whether it's the effort to try to influence our elections, whether it's what they're just have done in the Ukraine in the Black Sea. All of those issues raise serious concerns about our relationship with Russia. And if we have a president who had financial ties with Russia and somehow affected his ability to make judgments on foreign policy for the United States in a serious and objective way, that is the fundamental issue that I think the American people have to be concerned about. Is this president, in some way, owing to Russia in a way that affects the relationship that relates to our very national security? That's the fundamental question here. And I don't know the answer to that. And nobody does.
KEILAR: Yes. He says America first. Is he able, in this context, to put America first is the question, which we will continue to pursue.
I'm going to have you stand by, secretary, if you don't mind. We want to get your reaction. Want to get a quick break in. We want to talk to you about the president cancelling his meeting with Vladimir Putin. He's on his way right now to the G-20. So much to discuss about that.
We'll be back in just a moment.