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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Comey Speaks After Closed Door Meeting on Capitol Hill; Government Recommends "Substantial Term Of Imprisonment" For Michael Cohen. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 7, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:33:15] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Any minute now, we're expecting to see fired FBI Director James Comey come before the cameras to talk about his testimony today behind closed doors with the House Judiciary Committee. We've been told by Republicans on the committee that it was a contentious meeting at times, with Comey refusing to tell Republicans what they wanted to hear about his role in two specific investigations, the one into Hillary Clinton's e-mails and Russian election interference.

Let's go to CNN's Manu Raju who's on Capitol Hill. Manu, you've got some new reporting.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Actually, we're hearing that James Comey is going to come back again and talk to this Republican-led committee and their final weeks in power here in two weeks. That's because they did not get through the line of questioning they wanted to pursue, the Republicans, through this day-long session. We do expect Comey to come out any moment, but in two weeks, according to Jim Jordan, Comey will come back again to finish a round of questioning.

Now, he did not answer questions to the Republicans' satisfaction about the Russia investigation. He was sitting next to a Justice Department attorney who said he couldn't answer certain things because of the ongoing Mueller investigation. But Democrats, too, pushed him on a range of matters about why he reopened the Hillary Clinton investigation. He defended his decision to do that.

And, Jake, I'm also told he was asked about those leaks that apparently came out of the Southern District of New York, maybe to Rudy Giuliani, in the run up to the election. He said that he opened an investigation into those leaks, but he said he didn't know what happened to that investigation going forward. So he faced a range of questions on both sides. But it's uncertain whether he learned anything new out of these -- out of this inquiry, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju, thanks so much.

And when the former FBI director comes out and starts talking to reporters, we'll bring that to you live. Let's chat about this for now. [16:35:00] Jackie, Republicans, including Congressman Mark Meadows,

blamed the FBI's attorney who was present for preventing Comey from speaking freely. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Throughout our transcribed interviews with multiple witnesses, I believe the FBI has objected to a number of questions that should have been answered. And only to find out later that we were being able to get some of the answers to those that were denied during the transcribed interviews.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What are Republicans hoping to find out here? What's this about?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's about politics. But the good thing is, we'll know tomorrow what it's about, because the transcript -- they promised the transcript would be released in 24 hours. You also had Democrats coming out of that hearing, and saying everything that they were covering was in either Comey's book or his other testimonies. This seems to be a last gasp of some folks on their way out power wise.

TAPPER: What do you think this is about, senator? People think this is a setup, the Russia investigation, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, all that? What's going on?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There is plenty of evidence to show that a lot of things -- look at the Flynn memo, for example. I mean, you have a lot of things that the prior administration sort of set things up in a way that was to go and investigate the Trump campaign for things that were specious and weren't proper to be investigated in the first place. And so, I think they want to sort of, if they can, get to the nub of that and find out why they sort of broke protocol to open an investigation to a presidential campaign that, if it would have been done the other way, would have been unthinkable if a Republican administration would have done the same thing to a Democratic candidate. And I think just trying to get to the ground truth of that as to why this happened and who is to blame is an important thing to do.

TAPPER: Jen?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I find that pretty amazing what you just said. Because, first of all, we're on a day where we're going to have the sentencing of President Trump's personal lawyer, we're on a day where we're going to learn possibly what his campaign manager may have lied about. Any administration, I think, would have looked into whether it was Democrat or Republican, who was working with possibly colluding with a foreign government to win an election.

That's exactly what was happening here. I think as Jackie said, Republicans have two more weeks in power. We have seen what the house leadership has done under this Republican leadership. They're trying to grasp on for some last grasps at changing the subject as things are starting to heat up in the Russia investigation. We don't know what it's going to include, but to say that it's nothing belies in the face of the facts.

KUCINICH: And what we talk about every day.

TAPPER: Ryan, what Senator Santorum is talking about with the Flynn memo, I believe, is there is this question about why did somebody in the Obama administration leak to the media that Flynn was talking to the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Shouldn't that be investigated?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I feel like that's totally appropriate. If there was an illegal or inappropriate leak --

SANTORUM: Unmasking.

LIZZA: That's fine. But one thing that you said -- look, you talked about Comey investigating another presidential campaign, right? This is one of the reasons I'm sure this interview is very uncomfortable for Comey, because both Democrats and Republicans had reason --

SANTORUM: I agree.

LIZZA: -- to take shots at him. I thought Comey -- remember, the reason he was fired --

(CROSSTALK)

KUCINICH: They have done it before. But it's not clear what the purpose of this was, because there has been an inspector general report. There have been multiple -- we have seen Comey gone after by Democrats and Republicans live on camera since he left. So, I just -- it's unclear why now. What the end game is.

PSAKI: And he wrote an entire book, where he told a lot of stories and testified multiple times.

SANTORUM: Writing a book isn't -- you're telling your side of the story.

KUCINICH: But the inspector general's report was very, very critical of James Comey.

TAPPER: It was. Everyone, stick around.

In addition to hearing from Comey any moment, we're also expecting Robert Mueller to drop key new memos about Michael Cohen and about Paul Manafort. We're going to bring that to you as soon as we have it.

Plus, Trump's secretary of veterans' affairs with praise for the president, the president of the confederacy. That's a CNN exclusive, and it's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:41:58] TAPPER: There is former FBI Director James Comey talking to reporters after his meeting. Let's listen in.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: After a full day of questioning, two things are clear to me. One, we could have done this in open setting. And two, when you read the transcript, you will see that we are talking again about Hillary Clinton's e-mails, for heaven's sakes, so I'm not sure we need to do this at all.

But I'm trying to respect the institution and answer questions in a respectful way. You'll see I did that in the transcript. You'll see that if you get a transcript of my return visit, which I think will be week after next. And then this will be over.

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: -- in New York, when the new attorney general nominee served as attorney general last time, do you have confidence he can act in impartiality if he's confirmed to this one?

COMEY: I like and respect Bill Barr. I know he's an institutionalist who cares deeply about the integrity of the Justice Department. So I'm sure he'll use the standard career resources he has to judge what he should and shouldn't be involved in.

But Bill Barr is a talented person who is a good attorney general the first time. I like him very much then. I think he'll serve the Justice Department well.

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: But there's question about whether he should recuse himself from the Mueller probe.

COMEY: And I'm sure he'll talk to the career officials --

REPORTER: How extensively have you cooperated with the Mueller investigation at this point?

COMEY: I can't talk about that.

REPORTER: How many times have you spoken?

COMEY: I can't talk about that. I could, but I won't. I'm sorry.

REPORTER: The Republicans came out and said the government lawyers sort of ran interference and shut down specific lines of questioning. Did that happen? And if so, what topics were not discussed?

COMEY: When you read the transcript, I think you will not see that happening.

REPORTER: There are specific topics you feel you can't discuss from your time as FBI director? You've been out the door for a year-and-a- half now? What can't you answer? COMEY: Well, the FBI, for understandable reasons, doesn't want me

talking about the details of the investigation that is still ongoing. It began when I was FBI director. And so it makes sense that they don't want me going into those details. But that's a very teeny part of what we talked about today. A whole lot of Hillary Clinton's e- mails, which will bore you.

REPORTER: So you're OK with --

REPORTER: The next time the hearing will be public? Is there any talk of that?

COMEY: There wasn't any talk of it. I think they want to do it the same way. I wish it were going to be public, but I think we're going to have to do it the same way again.

REPORTER: You said you're OK with the Barr nomination. Did you have any concerns with the firing of Jeff Sessions and the president continually going after Jeff Sessions for not recusing himself on the Mueller investigation?

COMEY: I think the president's attacks on the Justice Department broadly and the FBI are something that no matter what political party you're in, you should find deeply troubling. And continue to speak out about. Not become numb to attacks on the rule of law.

REPORTER: So with the firing of Sessions specifically, did you have --

COMEY: That's not something I can comment on.

REPORTER: Mr. Comey, can I ask you a question on FISA abuses? The major issue for the Republicans. Did you have total confidence in the job when you used to (ph), to secure surveillance warrant and also the subsequent renewals?

[16:45:00]

COMEY: I have total confidence that the FISA process was followed and that the entire case was handled in a thoughtful, responsible way by DOJ and the FBI. I think the notion that FISA was abused here is nonsense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As a private citizen, how do you think Bob Mueller's investigation is going?

COMEY: As a private citizen, as someone who knows the justice system, I see it proceeding incredibly quickly and very, very professionally. The most important indication of that is you don't know anything about it except when he filed something in court, and that's the way it should be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you prepared to return next year when Democrats regain control of Congress to testify perhaps on the questions of obstruction of justice and impeachment case? COMEY: I always want to respect the institution of Congress. I'd love it. If they didn't want me to testify, but if they want me to testify and we can do it in a responsible way, I will abide it, so we'll see what happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know anything about Rod Rosenstein wearing a wire? Did that ever come up in any of your discussions (INAUDIBLE)?

COMEY: I can't comment on that. All right. Enjoy your weekend.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We have some breaking news. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have filed their sentencing memo on Michael Cohen, the President's former lawyer, and fixer. CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins me now. Shimon, what are they recommending? Do they want Cohen to go to prison?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Let's just say, Jake, this is not looking good for Michael Cohen based on my initial read of this. It's 40 pages so we're still getting through this. But yes, they are recommending significant jail time. More importantly, I think what people need to understand there. What this filing says is that they are not filing any kind of cooperation agreement, this 5K1 letter on behalf of Michael Cohen so that he would get a downgrade in his prison sentence. And why this is important is because what they say here is that Cohen repeatedly declined to provide full information about the scope of any additional criminal conduct in which he may have engaged or had knowledge.

So all along I think what's important here is that we've been led to believe that Michael Cohen has been fully cooperative with the Special Counsel, with the U.S. Attorney's offices, and if you read that statement they're in this filing, that doesn't seem to be the case, Jake. So in all this, it appears that they are asking for significant jail time.

And like I said, it's a pretty lengthy document, it's 40 pages, but there are some significant, significant headlines here, and perhaps maybe we're not going to learn as much as we expect about the Special Counsel's investigation and this looks to be more of so far about Michael Cohen and issues that he could possibly be facing now in terms of the jail time. Significant amount is what they're asking for here.

TAPPER: All right, Shimon thanks so much. We'll check back with you. Let's talk right now with Preet Bharara. He's the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Preet, this is happening on your former turf. I just -- I just want to read you a couple moments, just a couple lines from this just so you could get your feedback. It says, as set forth in the probation departments presented investigation report, the applicable U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range is 51 to 63 months in prison -- imprisonment and that he's delineate to number of reasons. This is Rob Khuzami, the Acting U.S. Attorney since the U.S. Attorney himself from the Southern District has recused himself. It says for these reasons the office respectfully requested the court

imposes substantial term of imprisonment, one that reflects a modest downward variance from the applicable guidelines range. So what does that mean?

PREET BHARARA, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Well, I'm glad you read some of it to me because I haven't had a chance to read the document yet and I'd be curious to see how it compares to the document filed by Michael Cohen's lawyers a few days ago which was a very well-written document and tried to portray Michael Cohen in very sympathetic light, to see whether or not the Southern District view of the extensiveness of the cooperation about Michael Cohen is the same as what Guy Petrillo wrote on behalf of his client Michael Cohen.

So the bottom line is clearly the prosecutors in my old office, all of whom I know, made a determination that in the interest of Justice, the sentencing guideline range that was put forward by the probation department is -- should basically be followed other than language that you just read to me which is not commonly used to the extent they said there should be a modest variance from the bottom end of the range which is 51 months.

Sometimes when people decide to cooperate, they do it too late. Sometimes when they decide to cooperate they do it after having a lot of hiccups through the prosecutor's office and that all may have played into the possibility that prosecutors did not find him to be as helpful as you might have otherwise been. He may have been a dollar late, I mean a day late and a dollar short. I got the phrase wrong. But without reading the full document, I don't know exactly what the prosecutors were thinking.

TAPPER: We should point out this is the sentencing guideline for -- the sentencing memo from the Southern District of New York from the Acting U.S. Attorney Rob Khuzami. This is not the same document that we are still expecting and waiting for from Robert Mueller. So I guess one of the questions I have for you is these two offices are operating separately, one would presume. Although I assume they also communicate with one another, Robert Mueller's office and the Southern District of New York.

If the Southern District of New York says that Cohen is not being cooperative and that hasn't been helpful, does that matter if Mueller says that Cohen is being cooperative and is being helpful or are they just completely two different birds?

[16:50:28] BHARARA: I don't think they're two different birds. I think it's a complicated and good question. You don't usually see things unfold this way. A lot of my colleagues have been confused -- former colleagues have been confused as to why Michael Cohen is being sentenced at this moment. The way that Guy Petrillo who I know very well and it's a very capable accomplished lawyer and used to work with me in the office as well, put it is that Michael Cohen wants to be sentenced even though the cooperation does not seem to be complete so that he can put this behind him, can get on with his life. If there's a prison sentence to be a term to be served, he serves it

and can be done more quickly ordinarily based on part of what the spirit of your question was, you wait till a cooperating witness has not only done all of it -- his cooperation with the office against whom he's fighting, but also if the -- if the agreement requires cooperation with other entities, like a state attorney general's office or another U.S. Attorney's Office or in this case the Special Counsel's Office.

You wait to see how all of that goes over time. And sometimes it can take months, sometimes it can take years, so that the judge then has a final accounting of how well that witness did, how much information he gave, how many other cases were able to be made on the basis of that substantial assistance so that you have a better chance at getting a lower sentence at the end of that process.

TAPPER: So Preet, listen to this because I'm going to bring in Evan Perez, one of our Justice Department Reporters to talk about the fact that the Southern District of New York does not think the Cohen is being cooperative. Evan, explain this part of the document with Rob Khuzami, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District saying that Cohen is not being cooperative. What do they -- what is he suggesting?

EVEN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. Part of -- part of the document here says that Cohen determined not to be fully cooperative with the -- with the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York. According to them, he, Cohen specifically declined to be -- to be debriefed on other uncharged criminal conduct so they were trying to get him to cooperate on other parts of the investigation that they still have ongoing. So beyond the stuff related to campaign finance that we already know he has admitted, he basically decided that he didn't want to cooperate beyond that.

And so for that reason, the U.S. Attorney's Office says that Michael Cohen's description of his cooperation was "overstated in some respects and incomplete in some others." They also mentioned that for instance you as you know, Michael Cohen has been meeting not only with prosecutors from the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office, with the Special Counsel's Office, but also from the U.S. -- from the Attorney General's Office in New York State which has a separate investigation going on.

And according to them Michael Cohen only gave information that essentially corroborates information that those investigators already have. In other words, Michael Cohen wasn't giving up the goods that the prosecutors that the investigators were seeking from him, he was giving only limited cooperation according to the prosecutors in Manhattan.

TAPPER: All right, Evan thank you so much. Preet, before I get you to react to that, I should note that there is more breaking news. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has just filed his sentencing memo --

BHARARA: I haven't heard that either. TAPPER: -- on Michael Cohen -- no, no, we're going to go over that

and we'll report it before we try to get your response but that's Mueller's case is obviously the one that outlines the role the President's former fixer has played in the Russia investigation having to do with lying to Congress about the deal with form -- Trump Tower Moscow that the Trump Organization was trying to put together. We're reading through that and we'll talk about that in a second. But I want to get your reaction to the fact that the Southern District of New York, this other prosecuting building is saying Michael Cohen is not cooperating with us. He is refused to tell us things. Does that surprise you?

BHARARA: We should get a whiteboard up. It gets -- getting very complicated. Now, what Evans said a minute ago is incredibly important and actually, give some content to this question or the answer the question. The way the Southern District operates, not every prosecutor's office is this way. This is how it operated before I got there and when I was there and now, is that if you really want to have the benefit of cooperation with respect to a recommendation from the prosecutors to the judge who imposes the ultimate sentence, it is not enough to tell them some things, it is not enough to tell them about even all of your own criminal conduct. You have to tell them about the criminal conduct of everyone else that you're aware of that you associated with and you have information on.

So sometimes what happens is you want to give up the goods ask yourself and ask to maybe some of your associates but not about your family, or not about your boss, or not about someone else, or you minimize in some way.

The Southern District is pretty ruthless on this question of making sure that you have given up all the goods on everyone you can, that you have confessed all your sins, and if not, then you don't get the benefit of cooperation and that looks like what happened here and that they were disappointed not necessarily in the things that he was truthful about but that he was minimizing in other areas and his cooperation was overstated which is why I wanted to know the comparison between what Cohen's lawyer said and what the prosecutors thought and clearly they thought it was not as helpful.

[16:55:27] TAPPER: And just to remind people that this is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Cohen in this case that we're talking about where significant jail time is being recommended, prison time is being recommended, Cohen is accused of willful tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, illegal campaign contributions, and making false statements to Congress. That is a lot. And obviously he implicated if you believe him, President Trump in the part of this having to do with illegal campaign contributions that has to do with paying off individuals who are claiming to have had affairs with President Trump, then-Candidate Trump so as to keep it out of the public.

So the Rob Khuzami, the Acting U.S. Attorney must think Cohen knows a lot more about other people and he's not sharing it whether it's Trump or other people at the Trump Organization or members of his family. There's that whole taxicab medallion thing, that he's not sharing that information.

BHARARA: Yes. I mean that's what it sounds like from the snippet that Evan read aloud on camera. You know, some people like to be selective and they like to give up the goods on some, as I've said, and protect others. And look, Michael Cohen has a history of knocking a straightforward truthful person. And you have this odd circumstance in which someone was about -- was being prosecuted by an office in part for telling lies and in part for obfuscating things with respect to his boss. All of a sudden you decide you want to come forward and tell the truth as to some things, it doesn't purify you automatically. And prosecutors are very careful about getting into bed with someone who can help them with respect to other cases if they haven't wholly cleansed themselves, not to keep using those kinds of metaphors, because it's a problematic thing that goes to the integrity of how they do their prosecutions and it makes such a person a difficult witness going forward.

Now I haven't seen the Manafort document and that's a separate case, but you see a parallel thing happening there and even a worse for Paul Manafort. Paul Manafort had his cooperation agreement ripped up by the Special Counsel's Office because he continued to lie too. So you can't just tell some truths, you have to tell the whole truth all the time.

TAPPER: Yes, nothing but the truth. Preet, stay right there because I want to bring back Shimon Prokupecz to bring us some more explanation about what's going on with the other Cohen document right now which has to do with Robert Mueller. Shimon, what is Robert Mueller recommending when it comes to prison time if any for President Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen.

PROKUPECZ: He's not -- they're not recommending any specific jail time but I will say to you that what the Special Counsel is actually arguing here helps Michael Cohen whereas what we see the way in which the Southern District is arguing it's not very helpful to him. So two things here in this Mueller document. First thing is that they say that the information Michael Cohen has provided, has been credible and consistent with other evidence that they've obtained, that is the Mueller team in their ongoing investigation.

Clearly, a very important part of this investigation, they have other corroboration outside of what Michael Cohen has already told them. And the other thing what they say is essentially that they believe the court should give Michael Cohen consideration because of his efforts and because he basically has helped them with their investigation and that's essentially you know how they end their memo regarding Michael Cohen. So we see kind of a different kind of take. You have the Southern District of New York here basically asking for this substantial jail time and you see the Special Counsel's Office here essentially saying, no, Michael Coleman tried to do right. He tried to fix things and therefore that should be considered in his sentencing. So that is helpful for Michael Cohen.

TAPPER: What's helpful for one case but not for the other. Let me bring back Preet Bharara the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Preet, this -- I'm a layman, I'm not a lawyer. It seems odd to me that you have two prosecutors in two different jurisdictions and one of them is saying he's very cooperative, we're not recommending jail time necessarily. Everything he's saying is consistent. And the other one is saying essentially throw the book at him, he's not helping us at all.

BHARARA: Look, you're right to be confused. I used to run that office. I'm a little bit confused myself and had both documents you know, here, which I'll say again I haven't had a chance to read. It's an unusual way for this to proceed. Maybe that there was a difference of opinion in how the Southern District felt about Michael Cohen and their interactions with him and it may be that separately when Michael Cohen was attempting to be cooperative to the Special Counsel's Office. It was a different kind of experience.

I mean, one of the things that I think seems to be true is that at some point Michael Cohen had a light bulb go off and in recent times tried to behave a little bit better and maybe that's what's reflected in the kinder document that's been filed by the Special Counsel.

TAPPER: All right, thanks so much. Our CNN coverage continues right now.