Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Filings Recommend Jail Time for Michael Cohen; NY Prosecutors Recommend "Substantial Term Of Imprisonment" For Michael Cohen; Special Counsel: Cohen Provided "Relevant And Useful Information" Concerning Contacts With "Persons Connected To The White House". Aired 5-6p ET
Aired December 7, 2018 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:02] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks so much. Our CNN coverage continues right now.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We're following breaking news.
We have just received two major filings involving the former Trump lawyer, Michael Cohen: one from the special counsel, Robert Mueller; another from federal prosecutors in New York. And we're awaiting another Mueller filing pertaining to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. There's lots of news that's breaking right now, significant developments.
I quickly want to go to our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez.
Evan, like all of us, you've been going through these filings. Give our viewers the headlines. What are you finding out?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a tale of two documents.
The first document, which was filed by the prosecutors in Manhattan, they describe a pattern of deception by Michael Cohen. We'll read just a part of what the court filing says.
It says that "Cohen, an attorney and businessman, committed four distinct federal crimes over a period of several years. He was motivated to do so by personal greed and repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends. Now he seeks extraordinary leniency, a sentence of no jail time, based principally on his rose-colored views of the seriousness of his crimes, his claims to a sympathetic personal history and his provision of certain information to law enforcement. But the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life."
Wolf, those are very, very strong words from the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. The first place, that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to -- to federal election crimes, essentially, as well as financial crimes.
One of the things the prosecutors note is that he underreported about $4 million in income he's due -- he owes the treasury about $1.4 million, according to them.
And they also say that, despite the fact that Michael Cohen claims to have been -- to have been very, very cooperative with prosecutors, they say that cooperation is, quote, "overstated in some respects and incomplete in others."
They cite a couple of different things, Wolf. They say that when prosecutors in Manhattan tried to ask Cohen about other crimes, things that he knew about, he declined to provide that information. And they also say that, when prosecutors from the attorney general of the state of New York asked for his help, he was only willing to give information that they already had.
Now, as far as the second document that's been filed in the past few minutes from the special counsel's office, Robert Mueller's office, they describe a more cooperative Michael Cohen. They say that he has essentially admitted to everything that he had done, including lying to members of Congress, obviously, when he had first testified by -- in the written document, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's interesting, because in the document that the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York says the sentencing guidelines for the crimes he committed, Michael Cohen, would range from 51 to 63 months. And then they say this: "For these reasons, the office respectfully requests that this court impose a substantial term of imprisonment, one that reflects a modest downward variance from the applicable guidelines range."
In other words, they're recommending only a very, very modest reduction from the 51 to 63 months, maybe four years, five years in prison. Is that right?
PEREZ: Right. That's right, Wolf. They're recommending, essentially, that he only get credit for being cooperative, for pleading guilty, obviously, to some of these crimes and avoiding having to go through a trial. But certainly, for helping the special counsel's office, that seems to be where all the credit that he's getting. Because that piece of information has been very key to that investigation. But certainly, as you point out, they're saying that he deserves to spend years behind bars because of this.
And keep in mind, Wolf, this is a deal that -- that the prosecutors in Manhattan were very close to not doing. They were ready to file charges against Michael Cohen. As a matter of fact, they were willing -- they even raised the prospect of charging his wife. They said that she had some exposure here.
So Michael Cohen, when he decided to plead guilty first in Manhattan, one of the reasons he did that was to spare his family and, frankly, they believe that he was going to spend many, many more years in prison if he did not do this deal.
BLITZER: Stand by, Evan. I want to bring Jeffrey Toobin in, our chief legal analyst.
Jeffrey, in this document that Robert Mueller submitted to the court, he makes it clear -- and he signs this document -- you've been reading it, all of us have been reading it -- that "Michael Cohen's lies to Congress were deliberate and premeditated."
[17:05:11] But Mueller, Jeffrey, also says, "The information he has provided has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the special counsel office ongoing investigation."
What are your major take-aways from these two documents?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think, you know, most of what people care about out there in the real world is, well, how does this affect Donald Trump?
I mean, you know, Michael Cohen will go to prison for some period of time. I think that's clear. But what does this mean for the Russia investigation? And what has intrigued me here is in the Mueller filing, in pages 5 and 6, it does suggest that Cohen gave information about contacts with Russia that are beyond what we currently know.
If I can just call your attention to a sentence here: "The defendant provided a detail account of his involvement and the involvement of others in the Moscow project." That's the plan to build Trump Tower in Moscow. "And also corrected the record concerning his outreach to the Russian government during the week of the United Nations General Assembly. The defendant also provided information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign."
This is further evidence of contacts between Russia and people affiliated with Russia, and Cohen and other people affiliated with the Trump world, Trump business world and the Trump campaign. That's why we care about all this. That's what's important. You know, whether Michael Cohen goes to jail for four years or three years is very important to him. But I don't think it's very important to the larger world.
What is significant, I think, is that Cohen told Mueller -- Mueller's office -- significant information about contacts between Russia and -- and Trump's world. It's not very specific, as it's outlined here. But this does appear to be new information, additional contacts, between Russia and -- and Trump's orbit. And that could turn out to be significant.
BLITZER: Yes. That's potentially very significant. Preet Bharara is with us, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, a CNN analyst.
Preet, what stands out to you? What do you think?
BHARARA: I agree with what Jeffrey Toobin just said. That what matters ultimately to a lot more people is how this affects Donald Trump. And I agree with the answer to that question, and that is there's clearly information that was provided to the special counsel's office that's significant. And it's caused the special counsel's office to have a somewhat softer and kinder view of Michael Cohen, because they believe they've gotten useful information. Maybe not be the smoking gun that some people suspected. But useful information in such a way that the story is not over.
It's interesting and odd, as we've been talking about for the last few minutes, that you've got two different prosecutors' office -- my old office and the special counsel's office -- both putting in sentencing memoranda about a person and having a slightly different view of that person's truthfulness and how forthcoming he was.
But the thing to bear in mind is, for Michael Cohen, they're two separate cases. They were not consolidated. They were before the same judge, William H. Pauly in the Southern District of New York. But they have separate docket numbers. There are separate crimes that have alleged and to which he has pled guilty.
The Southern District case involves eight counts that are very serious. And the guidelines that come with it that are in excess of 51 months in prison. On the other hand, the special counsel's office case is just one count of making a false statement to law enforcement authorities under 18 USC 001 that we've been talking about for many months now. And the sentencing guidelines that attach to that are just zero to six months.
So on the one hand, it seems like the Mueller team was sort of happier with how Michael Cohen interacted with them. On the other hand, the mitigation that Michael Cohen was trying to engage in with respect to a sentence is not as -- is not as needed, because the seriousness of the crime to which he pled guilty on the Mueller side is just not as significant. He wasn't going to get much jail time, if any, even without cooperation on the Mueller side.
BLITZER: So Preet, when Mueller says in his concluding line that Michael Cohen's sentence -- any sentence imposed in this case should be concurrently served with any sentence imposed in the United States versus Cohen, that's not all that significant, because what you're saying is the second count of lying only had a sentence of, what, zero to six months?
BHARARA: Yes, typically, yes. And I think in his case, that would be correct.
So, you know, if the judge decided to be tough on Michael Cohen with respect to the special counsel case, the lying count, and decide to give him six months, then again, it would be in the judge's discretion whether or not to make that concurrent to whatever number of years -- and it sounds like it will be years -- that he would impose on Michael Cohen in the other case that it probably is of no consequence.
[17:10:00] BLITZER: You know, Sara Murray is with us. We've been going through -- it's a very lengthy document with the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York submitted to the court. And there's a lot of information you're finding out involving, what, the president of the United States.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And remember, you know, the big bombshell when Michael Cohen actually appeared in court was that he implicated President Trump, although not by name. This filing does the same thing, although this time from the Southern District of New York.
It says in particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted with respect to both payments -- these are the payments to women -- "he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual One." That is the president of the United States, Donald Trump. So he's very clearly (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in that filing showing that Michael Cohen made these payments, but he did them while he was working with then-candidate Trump.
And the filing goes on to say that Cohen acted with an intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. So they make very clear that this was not something that Cohen was doing out of the good of his heart to protect Donald Trump's family at the time, but they were doing it to protect Donald Trump as a candidate and to try to influence the results of the election.
And I think, you know, it is a good point to look at the differences between this document we're seeing from the Southern District and what we have seen from Mueller's team. You know, the one from the Southern District of New York is extremely lengthy, obviously calls for some prison time.
Mueller's team does not go that far. They essentially say, "We're not going to take a position on whether he deserves prison time for this." And they lay out four concrete ways that they thought that Michael Cohen was useful to them. So clearly, he was willing to divulge a lot more quickly to the special counsel's office.
But, you know, one thing that they do note, even in Mueller's filing, is that, on Cohen's first interview, his first of seven sit-downs with the special counsel, he went in and offered to go in and provide some information, and still would not talk truthfully about that Trump Tower Moscow project. It wasn't until his second interview with the special counsel that he was willing to divulge information on that.
BLITZER: Susan Hennessey has been going through these documents, as well. Two separate filings to the court -- one from Mueller, one from the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The crimes committed by Michael Cohen, including willful tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, illegal campaign contributions and making false statements to Congress. Very different documents, though. Tell our viewers why they are different.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. I think one thing to sort of keep in mind in terms of the significance is one of these cases Robert Mueller thought was central to his own investigation, and he kept it for himself. Another he actually spun out to SDNY. So that shows us a little bit about what Robert Mueller is thinking.
Now, what Cohen has been charged with and pleaded guilty to in the Southern District of New York are really crimes that he committed. Right? Tax fraud, you know, false statements and, you know, this campaign finance violation, which obviously does -- does bear on the president of the United States. But it really is about his own conduct.
What he is charged with in the Mueller filing is, essentially, false statements to Congress. And that really is less about his own behavior, although, of course, he is the one who ultimately made the false statement. But it really is about sort of covering or providing a story for the president of the United States.
So I think what we're seeing here is two offices that have a very, very different sense, not just at the level of cooperation, but also of the severity of the crimes that they're addressing.
This SDNY sentencing memorandum, which is very harsh, is also responding to very, very serious crimes that were committed over a long period of time. You know, they really are motivated by greed, you know, whereas Mueller is talking about something far more discreet. And so whenever he's addressing the level of cooperation, the crime is -- is more discreet, and the cooperation is potentially more substantial.
BLITZER: I've been going through this document that the U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York submitted. They keep referring to Individual One, who is clearly the president of the United States. But then they say, "Individual One, who at that point had become the president of the United States."
Why do they refer to the president of the United States as "Individual One" instead of simply referring to him as "Donald Trump" or "the president of the United States"? Why bring up the whole notion of "Individual One"?
HENNESSEY: Right. So this is a filing convention. Whenever an uncharged individual is described in a court document, typically, you don't use that person's name.
BLITZER: But then they explain who Individual One is.
HENNESSEY: Right. So you're allowed to identify somebody by title. And in this case, there's only one president of the United States.
BLITZER: That's what I mean, yes.
HENNESSEY: So it's -- in this case, it's a little bit strange, because the title, of course, identifies a specific person. But that is -- typically, you don't use people's names.
I think what's -- what's significant here in the SDNY document really is that this is the first time that federal prosecutors are accusing the president of the United States of having directed a crime. And they're saying that in their own voice. This is not -- this is something that Michael Cohen stood up in the Southern District of New York and said that he had made these illegal campaign finance payments at the direction of Individual One, at the direction of the candidate. That was him speaking. This is the Southern District of New York. These are federal
prosecutors that are putting in their sentencing memorandum that they believe that that's what occurred, as well. You know, there's no way to sort of -- to beat around the bush here. That is federal prosecutors describing the president of the United States committing a crime. And I really do think that's the bombshell --
[17:15:17] MURRAY: Saying, you know, "Michael Cohen might be greedy and he might be a liar, but we believe that he was telling the truth about this." That Donald Trump was involved in directing and coordinating these payments.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And beyond that, I mean, you read the special prosecutor's documents. The subtext here you read about the Moscow project, is that there was awareness from other people, at least close to the president.
On page six of these documents, it talks about the fact that his statement to Congress was circulated, saying that he described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it.
So that -- there seem to be making clear that Cohen didn't just do this unilaterally, lying to Congress. He did it in conjunction with others.
And also, there are also other clues sprinkled throughout these documents about the president and how it might relate to him talking about how Mueller's team is interested in the contact Cohen had with the White House during the 2017-2018 time period. And so that would suggest that they're looking into perhaps witness tampering. As you'll recall, we reported last Friday that Cohen believed for a time that the president would give him a pardon if he was charged, based on what people around the president had been telling him.
And so what also sticks out to me in reading this is, we knew prior to this Robert Mueller was interested in the Moscow project. And reading these documents, now we see a little bit more of why he was so interested in this.
And he talks about the fact that someone from Russia, a Russian national, had reached out to Cohen during the campaign and made these promises, telling him that such a meeting "could have political synergy, synergy on a government level. It could have a phenomenal impact, not only in political, but in a business dimension, as well," of course referring to the Moscow project. The meeting never happened. The invitation never happened.
But clearly, all of this is sort of painting this picture of why the Moscow project, even though it never was -- actually came to fruition, why it's of interest to Robert Mueller.
MURRAY: And one thing that stands out about that portion of the special counsel's memo is that these were contacts happening in or around November of 2015. So it tells you that very early on -- Donald Trump was the frontrunner at that time -- but very early on, Moscow was trying to make inroads with Donald Trump's inner circle and trying to say, "Look how politically expedient it can be to work along with us."
It also says this person tried to repeatedly set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Again, it says that didn't come to fruition. But it tells you really, really early on in the campaign the Russians were trying to use some kind of leverage to get an in with Donald Trump.
HENNESSEY: It also makes clear that Donald Trump stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars off this Trump Tower Moscow project. And so while the president throughout the campaign said that he had no business interests in Russia, we see that that's plainly false. Not only did he have -- you know, have business contacts, he had substantial -- you know, there was a substantial amount of money to be made here.
And so whenever we think about his contact and his deference, his statements about Vladimir Putin, you know, potential changes to the Republican national convention platform, you know, when we look at that in light of an ongoing business deal in which he stands to make a tremendous amount of money, you know, it really does start to look far more troubling.
BLITZER: You know, Preet is still with us. Preet, I've been going through this document that Robert Khuzami, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York -- and you were once the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It is really brutal as far as Michael Cohen is concerned. They go after him on point after point after point, suggesting this guy committed major crimes.
Let me read a line to you, Preet. "While, Cohen, as his own submission makes clear, already enjoyed a privileged life, his desire for even greater wealth and influence precipitated an extensive course of criminal conduct described below." And then it goes through page after page after page of these crimes. It's a much tougher document that Mueller submitted. Explain why.
BHARARA: Clearly, the Southern District of New York prosecutors had a very different experience with Michael Cohen. And Michael Cohen's efforts to sort of transform himself into an object of pity or compassion, someone who's found the truth and wants to lead a law- abiding life and wants to accept responsibility, that's the view put forward by his very able lawyer, Guy Petrillo, and the Southern District is clearly having none of it.
In their experience with him, clearly with respect to the crimes that they uncovered, is probable, over time, lack of cooperativeness. Though there was probably instances where he was mildly cooperative. And as the memo also makes clear, his cooperation is overstated at sometimes, and incomplete in other instances.
[17:20:08] So the language is actually important, because one of the ways in which the government -- the prosecution side conveys to the court -- and the court member is the ultimate arbiter of what sentence, if any, gets imposed on any individual person in the federal system -- they're trying to convey, you know, sort of their sense of how bad the conduct was.
And when you have language like this, which I reviewed many, many, many times when I was in office and as a line prosecutor myself, you're trying to get the judge to understand that it's not just lip service that you're engaging in. It's not just boiler plate language. But you really do believe that this person doesn't deserve any kind of a substantial break. They're giving him, you know, a little bit of something by saying there should be some small deviation from the guidelines range, which is more than you would otherwise get if you're not a signed-up cooperator.
And the document also makes clear, they have never entered into a cooperation agreement with Michael Cohen. And people have probably learned over the last year-and-a-half in following all the ins and outs of all these investigations, the key to having a prosecutor's office decide to make an application to the court to give you leniency as a defendant is you enter into a cooperation agreement, which is basically the prosecutors blessing the idea that you have reformed yourself, that you have told the truth not just about yourself but everyone else. They believe you will tell the truth in the future. They believe that you have turned the corner on your own criminal conduct. And then you sign an agreement, by which they agree to write a particular kind of letter to the court.
And the prosecutors here are saying, they never did that. And they want to emphasize to the court that that is not what this is. That at most, he gave some information about some stuff and so some deviation from the sentencing guidelines is appropriate. But otherwise, this is a bad criminal. He did a lot of bad things. He did it from a position not of being weak or poor, but from a position of privilege. And they're strident about it, and the judge will get the message.
BLITZER: Yes, the -- and the U.S. attorney in New York says in addition to getting, what, four or five years in jail, they also want a forfeiture in the amount of half a million dollars and a fine, as well.
So they're very, very tough on Michael Cohen, despite his subsequent cooperation with the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
Jeffrey Toobin, you've been looking very, very closely at some of the details in the Mueller document that was submitted to the court. What are you seeing?
TOOBIN: Well, I think by far the most important part of either of these documents are about what it relates to the Russia investigation involving Cohen and candidate and President Trump. I mean, as -- you know, the Southern District case, except for the campaign finance stuff, is about Cohen's corruption regarding his business interests. I don't think most people can do or could -- do care much about that.
What really matters here, and what's highly, highly significant, is how Michael Cohen helped Robert Mueller's investigation of relations between Donald Trump and Russia. And the Mueller team identifies four areas, four areas where Cohen helped Mueller with regard to Russia. And I can -- I can go through them one at a time here.
BLITZER: Go ahead.
TOOBIN: The first area -- there you go. "The defendant provided information about his own contacts with Russian interests during the campaign and discussions with others in the course of making those contacts.
"Second, Cohen provided the special counsel's office with useful information concerning certain discrete Russian-related matters core to the investigation that he obtained by virtue with his regular contact with company executives during the campaign." That's Donald Trump.
"Third, Cohen provided relevant and useful information concerning -- concerning his contacts with persons connected with the White House during the 2017-18 time period."
This is a whole new area that, at least as far as I'm aware, no one knows about. The fact that they are looking into the behavior of the White House in 2017 and this year? I mean, maybe that explains our earlier report of why they were investigating or interviewing General Kelly, who only joined the White House in August of 2017.
Final area. "Fourth, Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries" -- which were false -- "while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it."
But what is really significant here, I think, is that Cohen told Mueller's office about more contacts between Trump's orbit and its -- it appears, Trump himself and Russia. And that's why we're here. That's why we care about Michael Cohen. That's why we care about Robert Mueller. Because of -- it's his effort to determine whether Russia participated in a conspiracy to affect the outcome of this election with one of the candidates in that election.
[17:25:13] BLITZER: Well, so basically, what I hear you saying, Jeffrey, is that when the president's lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and others, and the president himself -- when they read this document, that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, provided to the court today, they should -- they should get very, very nervous.
TOOBIN: He should be unhappy about that.
And if I could just give one more point along those lines. At the end of footnote two on page four, he -- the Mueller office says this. "The defendant admitted that his account of an earlier meeting was false, and that he had, in fact, conferred with Individual One" -- that's Donald Trump -- "about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russians' interest in such a meeting."
Like, Donald Trump is talking to Michael Cohen about reaching out to the Russian government? I think that's pretty significant. Now, Donald Trump may deny this conversation took place. I expect he will. But if there is corroboration of this, this is enormously significant. This is why we care about Michael Cohen at all. I don't care about
his finances. I don't care how long he goes to prison. This is very important.
BLITZER: Susan, what do you think?
HENNESSEY: No, I think Jeffrey is absolutely right, especially about this point of his ongoing contacts with the White House in 2017 and 2018.
You know, it's significant that they're including it in this document. Because that means that it is a subject of interest for them.
Now, whenever you have, essentially, lawyers for one party who is potentially implicated in criminal behavior, and another party having conversations with one another, your concern is always whether or not there is a witness tampering issue, whether or not there's some attempt to coordinate false statements in advance.
And, of course, whenever one of those parties is the president of the United States, there's a question about whether or not dangling a pardon can actually qualify as a form of obstruction of justice.
Now, I also think that this is significant whenever we think about the fact that Don McGahn sat down reportedly -- I think it was for 30 hours. You know, and John Kelly and others have now sat down and had these interviews with the special counsel's office. Now we're seeing that Cohen has also given his own story about what those communications and contacts might have looked like.
So I do think that this is -- you know, it's a single sentence, but it potentially has some really big implications.
BROWN: And what sticks out to me is that, basically, Mueller is laying out his obstruction case, because it's unclear in his final report if the public will even see that. We know there's a new attorney general nominated, but there -- it could be fully redacted. And so you're seeing him lay out the obstruction case, basically saying in these documents, Wolf, that Cohen coordinated with others in order to -- by lying to the public, in order to limit the investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
And while he's not explicitly saying that coordination was with the president, certainly, it was no mistake that they make reference to the fact he had contact with the White House in 2017, 2018 and that circulated his responses prior to lying to Congress with others. And so basically, they're making the case that there could be a conspiracy that Cohen, along with others, could have been doing this.
And that also ties in with the news today about why John Kelly, chief of staff, was interviewed. He was interviewed about Don McGahn and whether the president wanted Don McGahn to go up there and lie about wanting to fire Mueller.
So all of this is now sort of tying together in terms of what Mueller is focused on, beyond just the firing of James Comey, as it pertains to the obstruction case.
HENNESSEY: And I think it also is significant that this is coming out the same day we find out that Bill Barr is going to be the attorney general. Now Barr is someone who takes a very broad view of executive authority. He's the kind of person who might not believe that the president can obstruct justice by doing things like firing the FBI director.
This is describing conduct that is not the president acting in his Article II capacity as president of the United States. This is the president acting as sort of an ordinary person, somebody looking out for their own, you know, legal interests.
And so I do think that that's significant, potentially to whether or not Barr, if he ultimately is confirmed, is inclined to ultimately let Mueller's team go after the president or his close associates directly.
BLITZER: M.J. Lee has been going through these documents, as well.
M.J., talk a little bit about the crimes that Michael Cohen committed and how they were designed, at least some of them -- some of them were designed, according to these documents, to help Individual No. 1, namely the president of the United States.
M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we go through the SDNY filings, I think it's really important to spend a few minutes talking about the way that they laid out how Michael Cohen tried to illegally influence a 2016 presidential election and part of the reason, clearly, why they're asking for this substantial term of imprisonment for Michael Cohen.
And it all comes down to these secret payments we have been talking about all year. One to Karen McDougal and second to Stormy Daniels.
[17:30:00] Let me just first read a key passage from the STNY's memo. It says, "While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen saw to influence the election from the shadows." That goes on to say, "he did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extra marital affairs with individual one." That's, of course, President Trump. "In the process," it says, "Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election."
It is so important as we listen to this language that they're not just laying out, sort of, the technical or the legal reasons of how Michael Cohen went about trying to legally influence the election. They are making a really strong argument here for how Michael Cohen tried to hurt the Democratic process, how he really caused deception across the country. And they didn't necessarily have to use this kind of language about how so many American voters were, you know, exercising their Democratic rights to try to get the person they wanted elected president. And that while all of that was happening, here was Michael Cohen, trying to protect his boss by lying about these two women who say that they had extra marital affairs with Donald Trump. So, I thought that language was really important.
And if you're just looking at the SDNY memo, and, of course, you can't really look at that in its -- on its own, because the Mueller memo, of course, is important, as well. And we have to try to figure out how those two things are going to come together in determining Michael Cohen's fate. But if you're just looking at the SDNY memo, there's no question that this is a big blow to Michael Cohen, because his lawyers have been arguing for no jail time for Michael Cohen, and a big part of their strategy has been to paint this picture of a man who has come to his senses, who has now decided to cooperate fully, now wants to be the bearer of truth.
But the language in here very clearly says, you do not get to do all of these things, including illegally trying to affect the outcome of the presidential election and then say, all right, I made a mistake, I'm now pleading guilty and then call yourself a hero. So, again, just sort of reading the tone and the language of the memo from SDNY, it is very clear that they want to send a clear message that what Michael Cohen did, at least as it pertains to trying to legally affect the election, that is extremely not acceptable. And is not something that he should get off the hook for.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And the crimes of the illegal campaign contributions, M.J., involve the payments to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, that's basically included in this document.
LEE: That's right. The document lays out and much of this we already knew through our reporting, how Michael Cohen sought to help Donald Trump in protecting him and hiding these stories that these women wanted to tell. Karen McDougal is a woman who says she had a long- running affair with Donald Trump. Stormy Daniels is a woman who says she had a one-day encounter, sexual encounter with Donald Trump. Michael Cohen, in his role, a fixer for Donald Trump, in his role as his lawyer, he went through lengths to try to get these women to not tell their stories by paying them off, essentially, and this document makes it very clear just how unacceptable and how serious of a crime this is.
BLITZER: And it was done, according to this document, in coordination, once again, with individual number one, namely the president of the United States.
LEE: That's right. This is not a story of one man acting on his own. Even though, just earlier this year, that is the story that Michael Cohen was trying to tell. That he was doing this in his own capacity and his personal capacity out of loyalty to his boss, Donald Trump, that he wasn't doing this in coordination with Trump organization or the Trump campaign. And, of course, over the course of a couple of months, as we saw, just how much trouble Michael Cohen was in, that's when he began to change his story. He went from initially saying, this was something I was doing on my own. This was my idea, I wanted to protect President Trump; to outright saying, I did this at President Trump's direction when he was a candidate. BLITZER: Good reporting. Jeffrey Toobin, let's go through the
Mueller document. The government sentencing memorandum on United States versus Michael Cohen. And you've been looking very closely at the lies of Michael Cohen and how they're playing -- how they're being -- they're influencing this recommendation.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right. And I think this really complements what M.J. was saying. M.J. was saying, in the southern district case, the campaign contributions, the illegal campaign contributions, which was the money for the women he was having the affairs with, that Karen McDougal in particular, that was an illegal campaign contribution. It was designed to help Donald Trump get elected president.
[17:35:22] There's another way in the Mueller document that is about getting Donald Trump elected president. The lie he told -- the lie he told to Congress about when the negotiations were going on for Trump Tower Moscow, was all about the campaign. The reason he lied was to help Donald Trump get and stay elected president. Here is -- by publicly presenting this false narrative, "that is that the negotiations ended in 2015, the defendant deliberately shifted the time line of what had occurred in hopes of limiting investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. An issue of heightened national interest." The motive here, the motive for Cohen's criminal conduct as M.J. said in the campaign contributions case and here in the false statement case, is to help Donald Trump get and stay elected president of the United States.
This -- these crimes -- at least these crimes, are about helping Donald Trump in his political career. That's very significant, especially when the crimes that M.J. is talking about, the illegal campaign contributions, at least according to Cohen, were committed with Donald Trump. In no uncertain terms, the prosecutors in the southern district say that Cohen committed those crimes with Donald Trump. It's a pretty extraordinary thing to say that today, the United States Department of Justice, through this filing, said the president of the United States committed crimes. Doesn't mean it's true. But it's a pretty extraordinary thing.
BLITZER: And it's very extraordinary. Pamela, the illegal campaign contributions that Cohen has plead guilty to, involving the in-kind campaign contributions to these women in order to help Donald Trump win the presidency and that Cohen was doing this in coordination with Donald Trump. That's a serious allegation that they're making.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. And just what stands out to me and that as you'll recall, Donald Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he didn't know about this. And now, according to the court documents and what Cohen is saying, is he did this at the direction of Donald Trump. Another piece of the puzzle here brings into focus the statement on Air Force One about Don Jr.'s meeting with the Russians that the president dictated according to his lawyers, that initial misleading statement said this meeting with the Russians was approximately about adoptions. Well, then, we came to find out that it was actually about getting
dirt on Hillary Clinton. And why that matters is, now you have four examples of attempts to deceive the public. And Robert Mueller is saying in these documents that he looks at these lies to deceive the public as part of the obstruction probe, as efforts to limit the investigation into possible Russian interference in the election. And so, all of this sort of -- it's all coming together to paint this picture about what Robert Mueller believes constitutes obstruction.
BLITZER: That's an important point. Go ahead.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And to Pam's point, I think it's telling that we are getting all of this information now after the president and his legal team have submitted the president's written answers. Now, they weren't answering questions directly about obstruction, but they were certainly answering questions about potential Russian interference, about the Moscow project and that kind of thing. And so, we are now seeing publicly what obviously SDNY believes happened and what the special counsel believes happened to some extent. And you have to imagine that there is anxiety building in the White House as they are now starting to see glimpses of what these investigators actually have and are wondering, you know, how that matches up with the answers they've submitted.
BLITZER: That's a really important point. Susan, Sara just made, that looks like Mueller and company, they were waiting until after the written answers from the president were submitted to Robert Mueller in response to the written questions. And now, they're going out with all these -- all these points.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, that does appear to be the case, right? As soon as he actually submitted those questions, all of a sudden, we had all of this information from, you know, at the end of Flynn's cooperation. Now, this, the revelation that Paul Manafort, that they knew Paul Manafort was lying to them. You know, I think that they are clearly -- there's a strategic element here and then they are playing quite a strong hand.
You know, I think it's important to sort of just take a step back for one moment. You know, we have all the legal filings in front of us, and so we want to talk about the law. And just think from, not in legal terms, but just in terms of whether or not this is acceptable, what this actually is describing, both in terms of criminal conduct and noncriminal conduct. Is it acceptable -- is it acceptable that a candidate for the United States was engaged in this kind of business transaction? Is it acceptable that he lied? That he helped coordinate these campaign finance payments to hide his affairs?
[17:40:12] Now, the federal elections campaign act makes it a crime. It doesn't necessarily make it a crime to make certain types of payments, but makes it a crime to hide those payments, because the American people are supposed to have access to this information. So, I think one of the revelations of this document is not just that the crimes were committed, but that it worked. He concealed, precisely, the information that actually might have had a material outcome on the election. And so, I think we really cannot understate, sort of, the dramatic political implications that -- and consequences of this.
BLITZER: Preet Bahrara is still with us, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. And if you take look at both of these documents, the Mueller document that was submitted to the court. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York submitted, Robert Kuzami, the acting U.S. Attorney, the way they refer to what's called individual number one, the president of the United States, you see a significant potential difference? Is that right, Preet?
PREET BHARARA, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE SOUTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: I do, and I agree with everything that has been said so far, and particularly what Jeff Toobin has been saying about the significance of what Bob Mueller alleges with respect to the motive behind why Michael Cohen engaged in those lies to Congress, because he thought it was going to be in the interests of the Trump campaign. And to minimize the possibility that it would look terrible that they were still engaging in negotiations over this Moscow deal well after the Iowa caucuses. But there's an important distinction in how the lawyers, who are very meticulous on both teams, the special counsel team and Southern District of New York team, in how they talk about the role of Donald Trump.
Now, on page 11 of the Southern District document, as has been discussed, they're very specific when they say -- in particular, Cohen himself has now admitted with respect to both payments, and this is the payments to Stormy Daniels, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of individual one -- that's the president. That implicates the president directly. The Southern District seems to believe that they have additional evidence beyond what Michael Cohen has said, which is this plea agreement, that he did these things at the direction of the president of the United States. It's an important distinction to see in the Mueller document with respect to the lies told to Congress, Cohen has not said, nor has the special counsel said, that Cohen told those lies to Congress at the direction of the president of the United States, individual one.
Instead, he was -- it seems to me he was motivated by a desire to do right by the president, and to help the president, and to maybe protect the president. But there's a big difference between legally, at least, going back to the legal issue, between doing something because you think it will make the boss happy and you doing something because the boss told you to do it. So, I thought it was useful to point that out.
BLITZER: Yes, a very significant potential nuance there. And very quickly, in the document that Mueller submits, I notice that he personally signs it, respectfully submitted, Robert S. Mueller III, Special Counsel. And several of the other documents that have been submitted over the past year or so, other attorneys, other members of the special counsel and unit, they've signed these kinds of documents. How important is it that Mueller signed this one himself?
BHARARA: I guess it's significant. I don't see that I have the electronic signature. And when I was U.S. Attorney, and it looks like that's the case with Robert Kuzami, the acting U.S. Attorney, my name was in the signature block of every document filed in court, every subpoena, every grand jury document. Very rarely did I personally sign, usually the lead lawyer who's under the signature line signs it. So, if it's true that Bob Mueller has signed it and hasn't signed others, I guess that signifies his -- you know, desire to have the world understand --
BLITZER: Well, let me read to you what it says. It says, "Respectfully submitted, Robert S. Mueller III, Special Counsel." And then you see the initial -- I guess an initial -- (INAUDIBLE), Andrew Goldstein, L. Rush Atkinson, U.S. Department of Justice, Special Counsel's Office. They're included in the document, as well. I don't know if that's significant or not significant that we see Mueller's name there.
BHARARA: I haven't compared it to other documents. To me, it's standard operating procedure to have the head of the particular prosecution office, whether it's a U.S. Attorney's office or the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice or here the Special Counsel's Office, to have his name. So, I apologize for not knowing if that's a deviation from standard practice. But ordinarily, it would be the normal thing for the top person in that office's name for the document to be put into court under.
BLITZER: Good explanation. Jim Sciutto is with us, as well. Jim, it's interesting that some of the nuances that you've noticed in this -- in these two documents, as well.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, having been following this investigation since the beginning, going back to Russian interference in the election, if you're Donald Trump and Michael Cohen is cooperating with one of these investigations, the Southern District of New York or the Special Counsel, it is worse and more threatening for this president that Michael Cohen's cooperation has been more substantial with the special counsel because that is the investigation that more likely spells trouble for this president and his administration, particularly contacts with Russia. And let's go through some of the examples that we're learning from the Mueller filing here. That there were clearly more contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia than we knew about.
[17:45:29] They're describing outreach to the Russian government during the U.N. general assembly in 2016. They're describing attempts by other Russians, unspecified, but apparently ones we didn't know of yet, to reach the campaign. And this is also crucial, Wolf, that those contacts, according to the special counsel filing, were material to Russia interference in the election. They described that, they say that explicitly, noting, for instance, the contacts that Cohen lied about regarding ongoing negotiations about Trump Tower Moscow. That that happened, needed to happen with help from the Russian government, and it was happening as Russian interference in the election was intensifying.
So, the special counsel making a connection there that the president has denied those business contacts and Russia's overall interference in the election. And then finally, again why the cooperation with the special counsel is worrisome here. It carries those contacts out of the campaign into the Trump administration. Specifying -- and Jeff Toobin noted this earlier -- contacts into 2017 and 2018 with the White House to create a misleading impression to the public about the subject of those contacts, the extent of those contacts. That is potentially worrisome for the president with the cooperation that Michael Cohen is providing the special counsel.
And the final point I would make, Wolf, here is, is that all of this together, this filing, essentially destroys what has been the Trump world story, the president's story, for months now, including in those tweets just this morning that all the special counsel has turned up are old crimes, unrelated to the president. Well, the evidence they're talking about here carries right into this year. That's not old. And a number of mentions here of Cohen here directly implicating the president. For instance, on those payments to the women, to cover up the affairs, et cetera. But also, coordination and communication with the White House right into this year. That's significant for this president, and it's that cooperation, Cohen with the special counsel, that should be most concerning for him.
BLITZER: Yes, that's really an important point. I'm sure the White House and the president's lawyers and the president himself are going through this very carefully and they're pretty concerned when they see the allegations that they contain. Susan, you've been -- you want to make another point?
HENNESSEY: Yes, so, I think one thing to keep in mind is the question of remedies here. So, the president of the United States is overwhelmingly unlikely to be indicted but what this document shows is that things are going to get worse for the president, not better. And so, members of congress really need to decide right now whether or not the political remedy, which is impeachment here, whether or not this document is sufficient to have crossed the line or whether or not they are prepared to see where this goes. Because by every indication, this is going to get worse and worse and worse and become more and more politically damaging, not just to the president, but to everybody who stands by him.
BLITZER: Because the allegations that Michael Cohen was working with the Russians to help the Trump campaign, obviously very, very serious contained in this Mueller affidavit.
HENNESSEY: I think that's right. And we aren't talking about things that had nothing to do with Russia. We aren't talking about sort of the outer edges or the Trump organization. This is the core part of the inquiry. This is the part that they've been telling us was a witch hunt and there was absolutely nothing to it for months and months and months and years at this point. And so, what we really are seeing now is Robert Mueller, who has homed in on the molten core, the absolute center of this investigation, and he's not turning up nothing. He's not turning up Trump associates who are acting without his knowledge and not at his direction. Instead, you know, what we are seeing is profound coordination with the president of the United States, and that raises all kinds of other questions about whether or not it's plausible that they didn't coordinate with Donald Trump on all kinds of other questions. For example, this Trump Tower meeting and others. MURRAY: And I think it shows the lengths that President Trump and the
people around him are willing to go to try to win this election. And as you said, to keep President Trump in office and the quality of the people he surrounded him with but also, the president's own character. I mean, if you look at what we've learned through so many of these filings, we learned that the guy who led, you know, the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort, was essentially a crook. We're now learning, you know, in this very pitched SDNY document that they have a very dim view of Michael Cohen. They think he was a liar. They think he was a cheat. They think he was exceptionally greedy, that he was willing to, you know, take his own -- take democracy in his own hands to try to get President Trump elected.
[17:50:01] And then, obviously, we know that once President Trump was campaigning and once he had gone to the White House, he was not honest about what was going on with the Moscow project. He was not honest, if you believe in investigators in what they have put in these filings about the role he played with the women. And so, you know, I think President Trump has always worried that the investigation somehow made his victory at the White House tainted, and I think in many ways that is true. I mean, when you see the things that people did in order to get him elected, when you see the untruths he has told since being in office, there is a certain taint around it. Does it mean he wouldn't have won the presidency anyway? There's no way for us to know that, but it's certainly dark arts to get there.
BLITZER: Let me get David Axelrod to react as well. David, you've been a student of Washington for a long time. You've gone through these documents, all of them are going through the documents and there's page after page after page of allegations against Michael Cohen and his connection with what they call individual number one, which they themselves say is the president of the United States. What's the political fall-out do you anticipate in the short term and in the long term?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think some of this stuff are things we already knew. I in no way dismiss the importance of Michael Cohen's effort to pay off the two women to advance the president's candidacy, but that is sort of baked in the cake. We knew that happened. There really hasn't been -- I don't think there are many people in this country who don't understand what happened in that instance at this point. What seems really significant, and I think it will rumble through that town, is this new information about Michael Cohen as an intermediary with the Russians, not just on Trump business but also with hints of campaign business as well.
And so, this picture that the president is so desperate to avoid, this picture of collusion, begins to fill in. And what's so interesting about the way the special counsel has played these cards is that you begin to see more and more the puzzle the fill in, and it has to be alarming to the White House and it will create a stir. And now, you have a new congress coming in that is going to have to contemplate all of this when Mr. Mueller finishes his work.
BLITZER: And it probably explains why the president was on that Twitter tirade this morning, attacking Robert Mueller and his team, going after them tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet. I want to bring in Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California, he's a member of the Armed Services Committee. Congressman, what do you make of these two filings on Michael Cohen, the president's long-time lawyer and fixer, spent a decade working with Donald Trump? What does it tell you about the Mueller investigation?
REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, this particular filing is not the only one. The president clearly has surrounded himself with people that are willing to commit crimes and have been found guilty of crimes. You might say he's the head of a criminal family. And you take a look, why is all of this taking place? What does all of this mean? Well, eventually it's going to mean some very serious investigations by congress; what will be the outcome of that remains to be seen.
Mueller is going to do more investigations, but looking at the world in which we live today, clearly all of this is a very clear indication of why this president has been so cozy to Russia and so unwilling to hold that country and Putin accountable for their illegal actions, most recently having to do with the Ukrainian ships being seized. It all fits together, and what is taking place here is that the interests of the United States, the interests of America and the world around us are being held hostage to the president's understanding of his own peculiar and terrible criminal situation.
Where is this going to go? It is going to go, it seems to me, with the president being indicted or at least up to that point and it is going to go to Congress taking on a very serious and very, very appropriate investigation and you might call it the opening days of an impeachment. We're getting to that point now. And by the way, the word "conspiracy" has not been broached in this entire conversation, but when an individual conspires with another to break the law, that is a felony. That is a conspiracy. Now, is it an obstruction of justice? Probably so. We have some very, very serious issues here.
Mueller is going to complete his investigation. The Southern District Court and the prosecutors there will complete their investigation, and then it's going to come right into the laps of the Democratic Congress. And we have so many other things to do, but I don't think we're going to be able to get them done until we deal with this very serious situation of a president that clearly has surrounded himself with criminals.
[17:55:11] BLITZER: Well, you mentioned the word impeachment, congressman. Which impeachable offenses potentially do you see on the part of the president of the United States, specifically as far as these two documents released just now are concerned?
GARAMENDI: When we look at these filings, when we look at the other filings that have been made and the other charges that have been laid out against the Russians, against the GRU and others and the president standing in front of the American public and inviting Russia, to involve itself in the election, we're coming down to a situation where during the campaign laws were broken. There's no doubt about that at this point. In fact, Cohen has pleaded guilty to that fact and now we have the president implicated in that.
Are there sufficient collaboration that the president actually did it? I suspect we're going to find out, and probably the answer is yes. Now, we're into a situation where high crimes and misdemeanors have occurred. That's what the constitution says. Is it a political issue? Of course, it will be. But let's understand it is also the responsibility of the Congress to investigate, and where there has been high crimes and misdemeanors, we must take action. Now, there's other things that are floating around. The emoluments clause is out there. All of that remains unresolved and it is out there.
Clearly the Trump Hotel, international hotel here in Washington has been the source of enormous income to the Trumps organization. Is that an emolument violation? Well, we're going to find out because those cases are moving forward. All of that, back away from it and look where our country is today. Look at what this president has done to our country just in terms of the turmoil, in terms of not only the crimes that have taken place but the turmoil, the relationships with Russia, basically giving them a free hand to take over and to take these actions, not only in the Ukraine situation but in the Syrian situation.
BLITZER: All right.
GARAMENDI: Backing away -- we've got a very serious problem here. We're going to have to deal with it in the days ahead. What we're hearing today is just one more, one more shoe that has fallen along a line of very, very troublesome and, frankly, very, very sad circumstances for this nation.
BLITZER: We'll see how the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives after January 3rd deals with all of this. Congressman Garamendi, thanks so much for joining us.
GARAMENDI: Thank you.
BLITZER: All right, we're going to have a lot more on the breaking news right after this.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
[18:00:06] BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.