Return to Transcripts main page


Mueller to Release Filings on Manafort and Cohen; Stock Market Plummets; Trump Names Two New Posts; Sources Say Kelly to Resign Soon. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 7, 2018 - 16:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in our money lead, and the Dow dropping, down more than 500 points today, capping off a tumultuous week, as a source tells CNN that President Trump is anxious over the stock market's dismal performance.


CNN's Alison Kosik is at the New York Stock Exchange.

You heard the bell right there.

Alison, stocks were actually trading higher earlier today, but then the Trump administration seemed to send some conflicting messages about the state of the trade war?


That closing bell can't some soon enough with the kind of week we have had on Wall Street. And those conflicting messages coming out of the White House about the unresolved trade issues between the U.S. and China, that is exactly what spooked the markets today.

We had economic adviser Larry Kudlow coming out with a positive tone on CNBC,. Then trade adviser Peter Navarro saying that there would be -- warning there would be higher tariffs if these trade issues aren't resolved in 90 days.

So, all of that conflict really increased the anxiety and juiced the volatility today in the markets, leaving investors unable to figure out which way to trade. We will see what next week brings -- Jake.

TAPPER: A lot of confusion about whether or not the Trump White House has a strategy or any cohesion there.

KOSIK: Right.

TAPPER: Alison Kosik, thank you so much.

Turning now to our other breaking news. It's a Friday that could knock the wind out of the President Trump presidency. Robert Mueller's next big reveal could come literally at any moment. It involves two Trump figures who may know the most, along with Michael Flynn, about Trump campaign and business ties to Russians.

First, Michael Cohen, the man whose main job was to clean up Donald Trump's messes, any second now, between now and 5:00 p.m. Eastern time, Mueller is expected to submit his recommendation on how much prison time he thinks Cohen deserves, after pleading guilty to lying to Congress to back up President Trump's lies about having no business ties to Russia.

And speaking of lies, Mueller by midnight must explain to a judge what the president's former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, lied about, lies that resulted in Mueller shredding the Manafort plea agreement.

This is all happening as President Trump announces his choice for the next attorney general, also known as Robert Mueller's new boss, and as CNN is breaking stories about the encroaching Mueller storm, including new details about how Justice Department officials last year began an investigation into the president obstructing justice even before Mueller was appointed.

New information about how Chief of Staff John Kelly might be on his way out. He hasn't even been on speaking terms with the president. And the revelation that Kelly spoke with the special counsel.

CNN learning exclusively that Kelly answered Mueller's questions about obstruction of justice.

We have got it all covered with our team breaking down what this could mean for this president legally and politically.

Let's begin with CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, what can you tell us about Chief of Staff John Kelly talking to Mueller's team?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, sources tell Evan Perez and me that John Kelly was interviewed by the special counsel's team in recent months.

And, Jake, you know, of course, Kelly wasn't chief of staff until July of 2017. So this interview was almost surely not about Russian collusion during the campaign, but Mueller's probe into obstruction of these investigations.

In fact, we're told that one of the key things the special counsel wanted to know from Kelly was his recollection about an episode that Kelly apparently witnessed between the president and the now former White House counsel Don McGahn about a "New York Times" report that Trump wanted to fire Mueller.

Now, initially, White House lawyers objected to Mueller's request to interview Kelly, but then said yes after the special counsel narrowed the set of questions. And one of our sources told us that in order to question a government official about things that happened during the course of government business, you have got to show that it's highly important and you can't get it anywhere else.

And Mueller's team clearly showed that, and the White House chief of staff sat down for an interview.

TAPPER: All right. Interesting.

And, Dana, the president's attorney Rudy Giuliani told you that the Mueller team believes that President Trump knew about that Trump Tower meeting ahead of time, despite his public denials.

BASH: Yes.

Well, Giuliani talks to Manafort's legal team about topics that concern both of their clients. And what Giuliani told me is, based on those conversations, the special counsel doesn't believe Manafort's testimony on some issues relating to the president.

And Giuliani said, based on what he's told, Mueller's team doesn't seem to believe that the president was unaware about that infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting with the Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton at the time.

Now, Giuliani, as part of this conversation, is accusing the special counsel of trying to pressure Manafort to say things that he insists just aren't true.

I should note that he doesn't know, Giuliani doesn't know if this is going to be part of the filing at all that we're expecting that you talked about at the top of the hour, maybe even within the next few minutes, from Robert Mueller's team.

TAPPER: All right, Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Mueller's crucial filings are expected any moment.

CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown joins me now.

Pamela, these memos really could fill in some of the unknowns about the breadth of the Russia investigation.


This could be one of the most revealing days of the Russia investigation so far. Today's filings could give us a better understanding of alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and what prosecutors believe Paul Manafort lied about.



BROWN (voice-over): Court filings from special counsel Robert Mueller today expected to reveal brand-new details of the Russia probe. Mueller's team facing a deadline tonight to explain why it believes former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort broke his cooperation deal by lying to investigators and what he lied about.

The president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tells CNN, Mueller's team believes Manafort is lying about issues relating to the president, particularly about what then candidate Trump knew about Don Jr.'s infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians.

And by the top of the hour, the special counsel and federal prosecutors in New York will also file sentencing recommendations for President Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen, which could also include any information Cohen provided to Mueller's team.


BROWN: Cohen, who has meet with Mueller's team for more than 70 hours so far, pleaded guilty last week to lying to Congress about negotiations of a potential Trump Tower in Moscow.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

BROWN: Cohen is facing up to 63 months in prison and will be sentenced next Wednesday. The president has publicly called for Cohen to face the maximum penalty. But his cooperation agreement with Mueller could substantially reduce his sentence.

TRUMP: When everybody sees what's going on in the Justice Department -- I always put Justice now with quotes.

BROWN: CNN has also learned that after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and senior FBI officials saw Trump as a leader who needed to be reined in, according to two sources describing the sentiment at the time.

In the immediate days after Comey's firing, Andrew McCabe, then acting FBI director, began an obstruction of justice investigation, before the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, according to the sources.

A range of options were considered, including Rosenstein wearing a wear while meeting with Trump, a suggestion Rosenstein has denied.


BROWN: Now, again, the deadline for the Cohen filing is 5:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And let's just remember, Jake, there is a lot of anticipation for these filings. But they could also be filled with redactions, leaving more questions than answers.

TAPPER: Like the Flynn memo from earlier this week.

BROWN: Yes. TAPPER: Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Let's talk about this with our legal panel.

Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with you.

How significant is it that John Kelly, White House chief of staff, was questioned about obstruction of justice?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think the real surprise would have been if he had not been questioned.

If you look at how comprehensive the Mueller investigation has been, even though Kelly joined the White House late in the process, when you look at how much possible -- evidence of possible obstruction there is, it continued into the summer, the constant -- the constant attacks on Mueller, the shifting stories about what really went on.

I don't think there's any reason to believe that Kelly himself is suspected of any wrongdoing. But the fact that they talked to him is very consistent with how Mueller has operated.

TAPPER: Laura, Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, told CNN that Mueller believes Manafort's lying about Trump and possibly the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Jr., Jared Kushner, Manafort and the Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In other words, Mueller thinks that Trump knew and doesn't buy Manafort insisting that he didn't know. Does that suggest to you that Mueller has proof that the president knew?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, yes. Before you can call somebody a liar, you have to first conclude the truth.

And, of course, remember, the timing of this. All of these assertions by Mueller's team and Giuliani's response to it has come after the president of the United States has handed in his written answers about topics that likely also were similar to what Manafort is being accused of lying about.

And so I'm certain that before Mueller took the chance and took the step of telling the court in a court of law that somebody is lying and they would like to shred the plea agreement, that he had some basis to feel that the person was, in fact, not credible or truthful about that.

It's not a very light action that's taken by a prosecutor to, one, enter a plea agreement and then to tear it up and tell the court all the reasons why they believe the person was no longer credible.

TAPPER: Anne, these filings could reveal much more about Cohen's pursuit of a Trump Tower Moscow, which he's admitted he lied to -- he lied about to Congress., also about payoffs to women, alleging affairs with the president, as well as any relationship members of the Trump campaign may have had with Russia.

If you were one of the president's lawyers right now, how worried would you be?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think the president's lawyers should be very concerned, though I would note that I think, as you said, it's very possible that if there's any ongoing investigation, for example, the investigation of the president, that will likely be redacted and blacked out.


So what I think we will see are crimes that Cohen provided information on where that investigation has already concluded. The ones that are still going, I think, will be blacked out.

And so it's hard to know how much we will learn today. But I think, you know, it should tell us a lot about Cohen's assistance to the government, as well as his crimes.

TAPPER: And, Jeffrey, Mueller is expected to detail what Manafort lied about which caused him to shred the plea deal.

I want you to -- I want to remind you and our viewers what Manafort said when he was initially asked about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign, and Putin and his regime?

PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER DONALD TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: No, there are not. That's absurd. And, you know, there's no basis to it.

QUESTION: So, to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs?

MANAFORT: That's what he said. That's what I said. That's obviously what the proposition is.


TAPPER: Relevant to Mueller's inquiry -- I know, that's quite an answer.

TOOBIN: It's just the most convincing answer you have ever heard from a -- well, no, I mean, I think this is an absolutely crucial issue. I mean, this is at the heart of the collusion inquiry.

What was the relationship between Donald Trump or other people involved in the campaign with Russian interests, whether it's the people who were putting together the WikiLeaks -- the leaks to WikiLeaks, whether it was the people who were involved with the attempt to build Trump Tower, the social media effort that came out of St. Petersburg/

The core question here is, was anyone involved with the Trump campaign also involved with those Russian efforts? Manafort is someone, since he was so close to Russian interests through his contacts in the Ukraine, he would be someone you would certainly want to ask about those connections.

TAPPER: All three of you are former prosecutors. Jeffrey and Laura, you both worked at the Justice Department.

It's a pretty remarkable statement, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, as well as Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, along with other top FBI officials, thought that President Trump needed to be -- quote -- "reined in" after firing Comey and before Mueller was appointed.


COATES: Well, I think that's very prudent that he needed to be reined in, in the sense that you had something that had not happened.

You had a firing of an FBI director after requesting him to see his way fit to letting something go, after Sally Yates, a part of the Justice Department, said, listen, I think you have a national security adviser who may be compromised by Russia.

The fact that the dominoes began to fall at that point in time, and the president sought to stop that without a full investigation is shocking. And I would have been surprised had they not tried to investigate what it was that the president did not want them to investigate, either by firing James Comey or even later on by trying to fire Robert Mueller.

It's the same pattern.


TAPPER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: I'm sorry, but just, you know, these facts have become so familiar to us, because, you know, we have been talking about them for a year now, you know, Comey's statement that the president wanted him to go easy on Flynn, that he wanted loyalty.

You know, we're perhaps inured to it. This is not normal. This is not how the president has historically acted with regard to the FBI. This is inappropriate, at a minimum, behavior, and it is not surprising, and it is entirely correct that the FBI wanted to open an investigation on it.

TAPPER: Anne, do you anticipate that the documents we see about Michael Cohen and about Paul Manafort, about what Cohen is cooperating about, about what Manafort lied about, do you anticipate that they're going to be full of black marks and redactions because there is going to be so much about President Trump in there?

MILGRAM: I expect there will be a lot of black marks and redactions, because so much relates to -- we're speculating.

It's possible -- if Manafort lied, for example, about his personal finances, I think we would see that. That would not be redacted. But if it has anything to do with an ongoing current investigation, we won't see it.

There's some interesting things in Cohen's submission. He talks about assisting the Southern District with a case. Will we see that? That would be very interesting. But, again, if it's ongoing, we won't see it. So I think we should be prepared to see a lot of black marks, and we will see what we see.

TAPPER: All right.

We will read between the lines, though, of those redactions.

Anne, Jeffrey and Laura, thank you so much.

Any moment, Mueller's findings in both the Michael Cohen case and the Paul Manafort case could drop, which would, of course, rattle Trump's world even further.

At any second, former FBI Director James Comey is expected to talk with reporters on Capitol Hill after spending all day being questioned behind the closed doors by House Republicans. We will bring that to you live.

Stay with us.


[16:18:51] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our politics lead now. As we learn the chief of staff, John Kelly, was questioned by the special counsel's team in recent months, sources are also telling CNN that Kelly is expected to resign in the coming days. This as President Trump is also proposing two other significant changes to his administration, naming conservative attorney and former Bush 41 attorney general, William Barr, to serve as head of the Justice Department once again, and Heather Nauert, the current State Department spokeswoman and former Fox News host, for U.N. ambassador.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House now with this reporting.

And, Kaitlan, you're learning that Kelly's relationship with President Trump is apparently so tense that they're currently not even on speaking terms?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. Now, they have been in the same room for meetings this week, but when it comes to just the two of them, they are not talking. That shows how much things have changed from just five months ago when President Trump asked John Kelly to stay on as chief of staff for two more years, which he agreed to, and now, it's an open question inside the West Wing whether or not he's even going to be here for two more days.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to confirm -- COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump finally making good on his

promise to shake up his cabinet today, emerging from the White House to announce he'll nominate Bill Barr to be the next attorney general.

[16:20:05] TRUMP: He was my first choice from day one.

COLLINS: Barr ran the Justice Department during George H.W. Bush's administration and has received widespread praise from Republicans and even some Democrats.

If confirmed, Barr will take over for Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who has faced scrutiny for his past comments on the Russia investigation, but praised Barr today.

MATT WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I commend the president for this excellent choice.

TRUMP: I've seen very good things about him.

COLLINS: Trump announcing his new pick to oversee the Russia investigation just hours after he had launched an angry morning attack on the special counsel, promising a major counter report and response to Robert Mueller's findings, claiming 87 pages are already done.

The fresh attacks an apparent response to the news that Mueller and his team are set to release new details on the scope of their investigation, including what Paul Manafort misled investigators about, and new details on his deal with Michael Cohen.


COLLINS: Trump also announcing he's picked former Fox News host and current State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to replace Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, despite her lack of foreign policy experience.

TRUMP: She's very talented, very smart, very quick. And I think she's going to be respected by all. So --

COLLINS: As the president adds new faces to his administration, he's preparing to say goodbye to one more. With sources telling CNN, John Kelly is expected to resign in the coming days, and is no longer on speaking terms with the president who was actively discussing a replacement plan, despite asking his chief of staff just five months ago to stay on until 20, Trump, not answering questions about his fate today.

REPORTER: Are you firing your chief of staff?

COLLINS: And as the revolving door spins at the White House, those who no longer work there are still giving the president headaches.

REX TILLERSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: To go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn't like to read, doesn't read briefing reports, doesn't like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, look, this is what I believe. And you can try to convince me otherwise.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, Rex Tillerson also said the president is essentially ignorant of the laws and it didn't take the president long to respond to that criticism. He tweeted not too long ago while on Air Force One on his way back to Washington from Kansas City, praising Mike Pompeo, who succeeded Rex Tillerson at the State Department, but also adding that Rex Tillerson didn't have the mental capacity need. He was dumb as a rock, and I couldn't get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell -- Jake.

TAPPER: Of course. Yes. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this all with our panel. Let's start with Kelly. He's been living on borrowed time for a while now, and we keep hearing things about him leaving and then they patch things up. But this sounds really bad.

Have you ever heard of a professional -- you worked at the White House, the Obama White House. Have you ever heard of a professional work situation where people weren't on speaking terms?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, because even if you hate each other's guts, and there are certainly moments in any White House where the level of stress or the pressure on you leads to that, but you have to keep functioning. And certainly the chief of staff and the president need to have a functioning relationship to run the White House and govern the country.

TAPPER: Well, I know you worked in Congress, and I'm sure --


TAPPER: I'm sure. But you weren't all in -- you all had 435 of you, different agendas. But doesn't that surprise you that they're not -- I can understand there's tension. But not on speaking terms?

SANTORUM: It doesn't surprise me if we're going to find out in the next 24 hours that he's leaving.

TAPPER: Right.

SANTORUM: That would sort of be consistent with these -- there's no reason to continue the conversation.

PSAKI: And he spoke to Mueller.

SANTORUM: Yes. And -- that may be part of it. I don't know. But if he's leaving, no, that's not -- that wouldn't surprise me.

TAPPER: Jackie, I want to play more of what former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said about President Trump. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TILLERSON: We did not have a common value system. When the president would say, here's what I want to do, and here's how I want to do it. And I would have to say to him, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law. It violates a treaty. You know? He got really frustrated.


TAPPER: Wow. I mean, that's -- although, when you think of some of the things President Trump has said -- he has said we should be taking Iraq's oil. There are a number of things the president has proposed that we know on its face are aggregations of law or treaty.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, and when Tillerson was there, there were reports about him, you know, actually saying what he said there. Like, can't really do that. That's against international law. Things like that. But Tillerson knew what he was doing here, that he's poking the bear. I know the chairs are comfy, but that was clearly not a private conversation with TV's Bob Schieffer. So --

[16:25:04] TAPPER: Right. But listen to this, Ryan. Tillerson also talking about President Trump's governing style.


TILLERSON: He acts on his instincts, and in some respects, that looks like impulsiveness. But it's not his intent act on impulse. I think he really is trying to act on his instincts. What was challenging for me, coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil Corporation to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn't like to read, doesn't read briefing reports, doesn't like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, look, this is what I believe.


TAPPER: It's not inconsistent with what we've been hearing for two years, three years.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I was going to say, not a single surprise in anything he said, right? As you pointed out and were saying, he ran on certain things that were illegal, right? And every insider account of this information and just the daily press coverage confirm -- Tillerson confirmed all of that, right?

It's extraordinary to hear a former secretary of state say it publicly, right? Especially someone who denied that he had those views when he was in the administration. But I think the most serious thing is about breaking laws, right? He said that the president wanted to break the laws and had to be stopped. Shouldn't we know a little bit more about that?

TAPPER: What do you -- you're raising your hands.

SANTORUM: The undisciplined person here is Rex Tillerson. I mean, how does he not know that the president is going to turn around and call him dumb as a rock?

TAPPER: Well, I'm sure he did.


SANTORUM: So why would you wait -- it was march. And he's been quiet. And all of a sudden he sits down in the cozy chair and decides to flip out at the president for -- it just -- it seems very random and undisciplined on the part of Rex Tillerson. What's the point here?

He said nothing new. I disagree. I mean, the fact that the president wanted to do some things that were illegal? The president campaigned to do things that were, quote, against the law.

LIZZA: All I just want to know a little bit more, you know? If you heard Obama's secretary of state -- if John Kerry gave an interview tomorrow and said, you know, this has been on my mind. There were times Obama asked me to do illegal things --

SANTORUM: Yes, but -- like deliver cash to the Iranians, like those kind of illegal things, they did them.


LIZZA: Totally fair. I would say we want to know if the president was asking his secretary of state to do something illegal, just like you would want to know more if Kerry said that.

KUCINICH: And I think it's important that some of the things that Rex Tillerson said that confirm things we've heard about the president not reading, et cetera -- President Trump has called that fake news. Now we have a former cabinet secretary saying on the record, on camera, that these things are true.

TAPPER: I want to ask you, Jen, to switch topics for a second, because Heather Nauert, the former spokeswoman for the State Department, is going to be nominated to be the United Nations ambassador for the United States. You served as a spokeswoman for the State Department. What do you think about that?

PSAKI: Look, I think Heather, when she briefed, and they briefed a lot less than we did when I was there. She represented Trump's positions and his views, and she did that effectively. But that's not the job.

I mean, the job of U.S. U.N. ambassador is to be somebody driving the agenda behind the scenes, they're the unofficial leader of the diplomatic corps. It's really -- should be an effective front line of diplomacy role.

My suspicion here is that Ambassador Bolton and Secretary Pompeo are pulling a power move here. They want to consolidate power in Washington. They want all of the foreign policy decision making to be done there. And if they put someone who is a Trump loyalist in this role, if advocate for that, they can have that. TAPPER: And we've also heard that Bolton and Pompeo want to downgrade

the position.

PSAKI: Downgrade the position.

TAPPER: From a cabinet level to a non-cabinet level.

SANTORUM: Yes, I think what -- if -- the Trump organization saw the power that Nikki had as a great communicator -- Nikki Haley is a terrific communicator. And if you think of all the things she did, her role in these meetings, speaking to the U.N., was very, very powerful and really benefited the administration. And I think they saw, wow, that's really what we're going to make this position is, really the spokesperson for the United States to the community. I think Heather is a pretty good choice.

KUCINICH: But she hasn't contradicted the president. Nikki Haley was not afraid to contradict the president on Russia.

PSAKI: And I think they knew they don't want that. I also will say for Nikki Haley, I'm not a big Nikki Haley advocate.


PSAKI: But she was governor of a state. I mean, she had governing and political experience. That's a lot of what you do in the --

TAPPER: We have to take a quick break. We're awaiting a deadline for Robert Mueller to file his memo on Michael Cohen. It is due in the next 30 minutes or so. We could get it any moment. Stay with us.

Also any moment, former FBI Director James Comey is expected to speak after testifying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. We're going to bring that to you live.