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Contradiction in Statements; Conservatives on Possible Collusion; Manafort Sentencing Set. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 30, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: For sharing your day with us.

President Trump is at the G-20 Summit in Argentina, but his anger at the Russia special counsel traveled with him. Witch hunt returns to the Twitter feed as Robert Mueller's new moves focus on the president's Russia business deals and possible collusion.

Plus, the G-20 agenda is full of trade tensions. The president just met with Japan's prime minister after signing a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. The biggest challenge is China. And Presidents Trump and Xi have a big dinner planned to talk things over.

And how's this for a blunt farewell. Claire McCaskill just lost her Senate seat in the midterm vote and is now all too willing to size up some of her Republican colleagues.


SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: I just think Tom Cotton's kind of rude. You know, he just is not very friends. You know, Ted Cruz has gotten more friendly. It's probably very rude of me to name names, but, you know, what the hell, right?


KING: An interesting way to go out, huh?

We begin this Friday with denials and deflections as the special counsel more and more narrows his focus on President Trump in his election year dealings with Russia. This hour, the president, in Argentina, attending to business at a global summit with huge trade consequences. He just wrapped up a meeting with Japan's prime minister.

But, judge the president by his tweets and his mind is very much back here in Washington. His attention affixed on the investigation he calls a witch hunt.

Take a look, very legal and very cool, the president says, of his decision to run his business while running for president. Lightly is how the president described his interest in a Trump Tower Moscow project. Robert Mueller will test both of those statements and evidence included as part of Michael Cohen's plea deal raises doubt about whether the president is telling the truth. Cohen admitted yesterday he misled Congress. The president responded

by calling Cohen a weak person. The president says he's now inventing a story to get a break.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You just take a look at his written document. Go back, take a look at what he wrote in I think January he has a written statement and that's the fact.


KING: That's important what the president says. He says Cohen's initial account to Congress was the truth. But Mueller has e-mails to support Cohen's new version of events.

That isn't the president's only problems. The president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says there is, quote, no contradiction between what Cohen admitted to Robert Mueller and the president's written answers to the special counsel. Well, if you take that literally, always a danger with it comes to Giuliani, then the president was lying all through the 2016 campaign and again yesterday in his public comments about the Moscow project timeline.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live in Argentina.

Jeff, the president's anger clearly traveled with him, and I understand the White House press secretary also taking focus at the special counsel today.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, there's no question about it. There's this ripple effect that has followed the president, largely because he made clear what was on his mind at the very beginning of the morning, as you said, sending out those messages, again focusing on the Mueller investigation.

Well, just a few moments ago, when the president was meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, he was asked by reporters about that potential meeting with Vladimir Putin. And he said, look, the sole reason it was canceled, in the president's words, the sole reason was the incident in Ukraine with the Russian navy capturing some sailors there.

But, John, there is reason to believe that it is more to that. And look at the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sander's own statement this morning that gives a clear window into what is on the president's mind. She said this, let's look. She said, the Russian witch hunt hoax, which hopefully now is nearing an end, is doing very well. Unfortunately, it probably does undermine our relationship with Russia. That's very important. It does undermine our relationship with Russia, she says. However, the reason for our canceled meeting is Ukraine. Hopefully that will be resolved soon so that productive conversations can begin.

So making clear there that this has, in fact, impacted the president's day job, if you will. This has, in fact, impacted the president's ability to meet with world leaders, have important conversations here on the world stage.

But, John, what's unusual about this, the president has had many opportunities to speak out directly about the Ukraine situation. He has almost never done so. He has talked a couple of times, but not with the condemnation. So if he is so concerned about Ukraine, some would argue why not have a meeting with Vladimir Putin and discuss this face-to-face. But the president, at least as of now, not wanting to meet face-to-face with Vladimir Putin. The only thing that's changed, John, are those headlines from the Russia investigation that are very much in the news here as well.


KING: Those headlines very much -- that's an understatement, my friend. Mr. Jeff Zeleny live in Buenos Aries. Keep in touch with us, Jeff, as the president makes his way through a busy schedule there.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Eliana Johnson with "Politico," Michael Shear with "The New York Times," CNN's Manu Raju and Rachael Bade also with "Politico."

I want to come back to start with the president's tweets where he says, what's the big deal essentially. Everyone knows I was a businessman. I was running for president. There's nothing wrong with having my business while running for president. That's what the president says. Very light, very cool, it's all good, it's all legal.

But he ignores that as a candidate for president he was calling for easing sanctions on Russia. As a candidate for president, if they were still negotiating a Trump Tower Moscow deal into noon and possibly telling Vladimir Putin you can have the penthouse, first reported by "Buzzfeed," now confirmed by CNN, that would violates federal corruption laws. You can't do that. The president conveniently leaves that stuff out.

[12:05:30] MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES." So, you know, part of what is important about this whole story, this whole Russia story, is not taking pieces individually and looking at them individually, because when you do that, when you sort of slice it off and look at any one thing, like the president wants to do, you can sort of shrug your shoulders and say, well that's, you know, that's, you know, not illegal. It may be sort of unseemly, but it didn't really actually violate any laws or violate any ethical considerations.

The difference is, when you start putting the pieces all together and you look at the connection, as you said, what are the connections between his business dealings, his foreign policy pronouncements, the campaign decisions? What is the linkages between WikiLeaks and what WikiLeaks did in all of this? And the problem for the president is the for the last year and a half or so he's been able to try to -- it's all been dribbling out in little pieces.

But Bob Mueller is putting the pieces together. Bob Mueller isn't looking at this as individual little things. He's trying to connect all the dots. And, ultimately, you know, I guess the expectation is, we'll all see that that picture that, a, put together, and that's when it will be -- the president will be at the most risk.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": And the president, you know, he must know that it was unseemly and that this was, you know, distasteful --

SHEAR: Right.

BADE: If not illegal in some way because during -- during the 2016 election he said over and over and over again, I have no business dealings with Russia, nothing's going on with them, and now he seemed to say, oh, you know, there was nothing abnormal about this. Of course I was conditioning my business as usual in case I lost the election. Well, you can't say both things. He's totally contradicting himself right here. And I think that puts him in trouble right there because it shows he's flip flopping.


ELIANA JOHNSON, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "POLITICO": Yes, the president's dishonesty about this, I think, seems to suggest that this wasn't above board or he felt that there was something that wasn't above board in his stance -- his policy stance towards Russia, which was to be tremendously friendly towards Vladimir Putin, not the typical Republican stance, while not disclosing that he was pressing for a business deal in Russia throughout the Republican primary campaign.

It reminded me sort of of objections to the Clinton Foundation, which was, you know, booking speeches for President Bill Clinton with foreign countries, paying a lot of money to get him to speak there while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and then campaigning for president. And, again, may not be illegal, but it's unseemly and creates at least the impression of conflicts of interest. And this is worse, I think, but it's precisely the same objections.

RAJU: And, you know, the question, the big question also is, why do people in the Trump orbit keep lying about key elements about what happened? If there was really nothing wrong about what happened, why not tell the truth. Why did Michael Cohen -- he acknowledges he did lie because he said he wanted to help with the political narrative. That's why he didn't acknowledge that these conversations continued until June of 2016.

But Michael Flynn, he lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. We're learning more about contacts that Roger Stone may have had with WikiLeaks. He has denied any of that. And there could be others.

Donald Trump Junior testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee when he met with them, suggested that the Trump Tower Moscow project ended much earlier than what Michael Cohen acknowledged in federal court. So that's the big question going forward, why -- why with all these lies? And the cliche may be accurate. The cover-up sometimes maybe is worse than the crime.

KING: But to the point about the facts at stake. We've been waiting, and we've learned very little because Mueller doesn't leak, so we see -- when the president tweets, we know he knows more than we do and we try to figure out, what is he trying to tell us. And occasionally we get these filings. And now we have the Cohen plea deal.

Felix Sater is a businessman, he's also a convicted felon, who has done business with Trump repeatedly and he confirmed to CNN some reporting first done by "BuzzFeed" about one idea considered for the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow was to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin the penthouse, according to Felix Sater, who was working on the project with Michael Cohen. Now, that is a way to sort of essentially get the regulatory, we would call it here in the United States, a little different system in Russia, but to get the system, get it greased. To get this greased. Vladimir Putin says he's wants it, you get it greased.

This is the reaction -- this is interesting to me. John Podhoretz, a columnist in "The New York Post," who has often said, what is Robert Mueller doing, what are people picking on President Trump, back off everybody, calm down, writes today, today, I'm not such a skeptic any longer. Here's why. For starters, we now know, from the plea deal between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and special counsel Robert Mueller that the Trump organization was actively seeking business opportunities in Moscow even as Trump was securing the GOP nomination. Given the transactional nature of both Trump and Putin, the ideas that quid pro quos might have been discussed is impossible to dismiss.

[12:10:03] So even out here in the world of conservative commentary, Mueller is now breaking through, if you will, as he gets closer to the top of his pyramid people are saying, hmm.


BADE: And particularly noteworthy from a conservative.

But also, I can tell you, you know, from a Hill standpoint, Democrats in the House had sort of let go of this collusion sort of discussion for a long time. They were focusing mostly on potential obstruction of justice and sort of the president's interaction with the Justice Department. And now, after this week, with all these new revelations, they are 100 percent saying collusion again. Jerry Nadler was on CNN this morning saying there seems to be evidence of collusion. And, you know, so they are, once again, grasping back on that. And that's going to be a big problem for him when the Democrats take the House in January.

KING: Another -- another interesting dynamics today is, there are still calls, Jeff Flake on the Republican side, and one or two others, mostly Democrats, saying as we do the year end spending bill let's protect Robert Mueller. But there are also some people saying, look at what happened yesterday. For all the concerns about the Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, if he wanted to block Robert Mueller, he has the authority to do so and he didn't. This is in "The Washington Post." The regulations do not require the attorney general to approve such steps. Meaning the plea deal yesterday. The attorney general can request that the special counsel explain a step that is being taken and can conclude that an action is so unwarranted under department practices that it should not be pursued. Now, we don't know everything about this, in part, and I put this on

Mr. Whitaker, he has not publically explained, is he hands off, is he hands on? Did he get an ethics ruling or not? He has not publically explained that, which I think he owes the American people. But he did not get -- he did not throw himself in front of the train yesterday. Will that give Democrats any pause in the effort to think Matthew Whitaker's a problem?

RAJU: Well, look, if he did do something to interfere with that, he would have to acknowledge that somewhere in writing and that could be a focus of further investigation that could put him in hot water. Perhaps he wanted to avoid that. He recognizes that he can't just do whatever he wants. He's going to be held accountable for his actions. And so it's a risky thing for him to do, to step in front of something like this, a moving train, (INAUDIBLE) plea deal.

JOHNSON: I also believe that his opacity with regard to where he stands on the Mueller probe, if he's going to say, I'm not going to interfere with it and please people, that's something that's going to set Trump off. So I actually believe his stances is that he's not going to interfere with it, as we saw with the Michael Cohen plea. He can't say that if he wants to keep his job with Trump. And that's why I believe he's being shady about this publicly, though I do agree he owes an explanation. He can't give it he wants to keep his job.

And that's an example of the tremendously difficult position we've seen the president put his cabinet secretaries in, even if they want to answer the question, did Russia influence the election? They can't do it if they want to keep their jobs or remain in good standing with the president.

SHEAR: IT's also true, though, that this -- this plea deal seems like it was very far along by the time Whitaker came in. And so if you're looking to see whether Whitaker may still yet do things to hamper the investigation, it's probably more likely to be things that are more nascent and earlier in the process because that's easier to stop and to make some justification about stopping than something that appears to have been very far along by the time he came (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Agree. However, at least, in this case, he seemed to at least let it go forward.

Stay with us. We expect more in the weeks ahead. That will be tested, as well as many other things.

Up next for us, the special counsel team, to Michael's point, back in court this morning after they said Paul Manafort lied and broke his plea deal.


[12:17:23] KING: Welcome back.

Attorneys for Paul Manafort and the special counsel back in federal court today to set a sentencing date for the former Trump campaign chairman. This after Mueller said last week that Manafort has lied repeatedly to investigators after making a plea deal.

Manafort was not in the courtroom today, but he will be on March 5th. That was the date scheduled for his sentencing. Prosecutors told the judge they've not yet decided if they will charge Manafort with any new counts for lying or that they will take him to trial in D.C. on some previous counts now that their agreement has, in their view, been broken.

CNN's Evan Perez was at the courthouse and joins our conversation.

This is one of the building blocks. We were just talking in the last conversation, if you focus on any one things, it's easy to get confused or distracted. But Manafort is key to the bigger picture. Was there collusion? Was there business dealings? Was he, as a campaign official, involved in any shenanigans? What was the biggest takeaway from court this morning?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the biggest takeaway, John, is that the special counsel has a set of facts that they're going to lay out. And I think this is where we're going to get a -- some big chunks of what Mueller has found in his investigation. I think a lot of -- a lot of us obviously have been waiting 18 months for this investigation. We don't know a lot of what has been found as far as the collusion question. But you can beginning -- you can begin to see that the strategy here by the Mueller team is to lay out some of what they found in these court filings, in some of the indictments, but certainly in these court filings. And so that's what we expect, beginning next week, when they're going to say what Paul Manafort was up to and why they know he is lying. And then, as you said, now that sentencing is being pushed to March 5th. So the president, you know, complains about this investigation being a witch hunt and something that's you know, overshadowing his presidency. Well, he's going to have to life with it, at least through the beginning of next year and probably beyond.

KING: And the question is, does Mueller have anything that connects Manafort to campaign related issues, in the sense that what he was tried for was his past lobbying work for Ukraine and others. Nothing in any of those documents, to be fair to the president, nothing in any of those documents have anything to do with businessman Donald Trump, candidate Donald Trump or President Donald Trump, what Manafort's been charged with so far.

But we also know he had these Russia contacts. We also know he came into the campaign. And so that is the question. We know he was at the infamous Trump Tower meeting organized by Donald Junior.

I just want you to listen to this, because as we try -- as we now know what Mueller's looking at, business interests, maybe Trump Tower Moscow, possible collusion with WikiLeaks involving Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi. You go back and look at things people said back then. This is Paul Manafort, near the end of the campaign, it's July, the convention time, July 2016, on the question of Russia business dealings.

[12:20:01] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs?

PAUL MANAFORT, TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: That's what he said. I don't -- that's what I -- that's obviously what the -- my position is.


KING: That's what he said. That's what I said. That's what our position is?


KING: That's what our position is?

BADE: Should have known right there, right?

RAJU: Right, that -- and that was right around the same time that they made changes to the platform of the RNC. Some people believe that was to make it look more favorable towards Russia on their position on Ukraine. But, again, you put all the pieces together, it raises all these questions going forward about what exactly happened in the 2016 campaign.

KING: Right. You have a candidate whose campaign watered down the Republican platform to make it less tough on Russia when it comes to Russian interference in the neighborhood, if you will. You have a candidate who says, maybe Obama's wrong about these sanctions. Maybe we should ease and sanctions, remove the sanctions on Russia. So Paul Manafort there. And this was how you try to connect the dots to Michael Cohen's plea agreement when -- why did he say the Trump Tower Moscow deal -- he originally said it ended in January. Beginning of the campaign, before Iowa, done, we stop, he was a candidate. Now he says it went on through June, right up just a month before the convention. Cohen says, I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual ones political messaging and out of loyalty to individual one. Individual one is Donald J. Trump, then the Republican nominee, or about to be nominee for president, now the president of the United States.

PEREZ: And, you know, the reason why the president is acting the way he is, and I think you can see from his tweets what is on his mind, him -- he and his legal team believe that what you're beginning to see emerge is these filings, including the one with Michael Cohen, is a narrative. A narrative from the Mueller team. And they may never charge anybody significant with an actual crime. But what they're doing in these court filings is they're laying out a narrative of this collusion case that is happening of what they believe they found. And they're concerned because they don't get to respond to any of these things. This is -- this is done in court filings. A judge gets to declare them to be facts. And they don't get to claim executive privilege. They don't get to fight any of this stuff. And they believe that that's unfair. They believe that they ought to have their day in court. And obviously the president can't be charged with a crime. But that's their concern is that the -- Mueller is going after the president but he's doing it in a stealth way. KING: And one of the things the president has complained to in phone

calls with friends and associates is he thinks Mueller's going after his family as well and his business as well. That's what the president complains about. And we remember way back he told "The New York Times" a long time ago he had a red line if Mueller got into his personal finances or into his business.

Well, this is from "Yahoo News" this morning. Multiple sources have confirmed to "Yahoo News" that the president's eldest daughter, Ivanka, who is now a top White House adviser, and his eldest son, Don Junior, were also working to make the Trump Tower Moscow a reality. And a separate source familiar with the investigation told "Yahoo News" that Mueller has asked questions about Ivanka and Don Junior's work on Trump Tower Moscow.

Brings it into the family.

JOHNSON: Somebody following this who -- a smart person said to me that Mueller's strategy is somewhat like the mob where he may never touch Trump, but he's going after the people he loves. And that clearly is getting under the president's skin. And I think to Evan's point, we don't know how this will shake out legally for the president, but it's having an enormous impact on his presidency. The president is having a lot of difficulty conducting his -- conducting foreign policy while the shadow of this probe is hanging over him.

Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russians connected DNC hacking the day before the president left for Helsinki, for a summit with Vladimir Putin, in what was arguably the worst moment of his presidency. This Michael Cohen plea deal was announced the day before he left for the G-20 and probably caused the president to call off a meeting with Vladimir Putin. That indictment is now hanging over an enormous -- or that plea deal is now hanging over another global summit. And it is tremendously affecting the art of the Trump presidency. And I think the president knows that. He complains that he can't have a foreign policy with Russia while this is ongoing. And I think that's what really gets under his skin about this probe.

KING: To your point, brisling a little bit with Prime Minister Abe, saying it was the basis of Russians actions in Ukraine was, quote, the sole reason he canceled the meeting because the suggestion has been he doesn't want to meet with Putin at this moment because of the domestic issues. You're dead right about it being under his skin.

Up next for us here, President Trump does get a trade win at the G-20 with the new NAFTA replacement. Here's what the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, she would like to be speaker come January, here's her take on the deal.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: Whatever they're calling it now has some kind of --



PELOSI: The trade agreement formerly known as Prince. No, I mean, formerly known --



[12:29:25] KING: Welcome back.

A celebration today at the G-20 Summit, but also a reminder trade tensions are everywhere as President Trump deals with other major powers. The big event today was the signing of the new U.S., Mexico, Canada trade agreement. It would replace NAFTA if, it's a big if, the president can get Congress to embrace it. Smiles at that event, yes, but also reminders of the bruising negotiations to get this deal, and reminder this deal does not end every neighborhood trade fight.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president, I must say, Pena Nieto, and Prime Minister Trudeau, we've worked hard on this agreement. It's been long and hard.