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Accused Russian Spy Maria Butina Strikes Plea Deal; White House Chief of Staff Kelly Out at Year's End; Prosecutors Directly Tie Trump to Crimes in Sentencing Memo on Cohen; Democrats Discuss Impeachment, Possible Jail for Trump. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:19] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

Breaking news out of the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors have struck a plea deal with Maria Butina, a woman charged with illegally acting as a foreign agent for Russia for trying to infiltrate Republican circles during the 2016 campaign. You'll remember her story.

Let's get over to CNN's political correspondent, Sara Murray, in Washington following this.

Sara, what do you have?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, it does appear prosecutors and Maria Butina have reached a deal. We got a new filing from the government in connection with her lawyers and it says the parties have resolved this matter. It's a change-of-plea filing. They're asking for a hearing in front of the judge as early as tomorrow morning.

We know originally Maria Butina had pled not guilty to two counts, one of conspiracy, one of acting as a foreign agent. This change-in-plea filing indicates she's prepared to plead guilty on some of these charges. If she does move forward with the plea deal, if she does plead guilty, will she be cooperating with the U.S. government? If so, what would they want to learn from her? Would they want intel on her Russian backers, for instance, that's prosecutors say she was in touch with when she was in the U.S. acting as an American university student? Would they want to get information on her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, who prosecutors believe was helping her with her plot here in the United States?

Remember, the basis of prosecutors' claim was she came here, tried to ingratiate herself with politically influential individuals and groups, including the National Rifle Association, and then tried to exploit those connections in order to further Russian interests. All of this while reporting back to her backers in Russia.

She, like everyone else, has been very unhappy to be incarcerated. Her lawyer has made a number of plays to try to remove her from jail and put her under house arrest or at least remove her from solitary confinement. He's been completely unsuccessful in that. We'll see what the judge says when they set a hearing.

One thing, Kate, to keep in mind is, if she does plead guilty and moves forward, she's likely to be sent back to Russia when she's released.

BOLDUAN: A lot of moving parts.

Sara, great to see you. Thank you so much.

We have that. We also have this. President Trump making history, but yet again, not the kind of history that any president wants to be making. For the first time, prosecutors have directly tied President Trump to federal crimes. That was revealed in the sentencing memo of his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller also laying out new details on what they believe Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, lied to them about. Lies that effectively killed his plea deal with federal prosecutors.

And with all of this, it might come as then no surprise that the "Washington Post" is reporting that among Republicans, anxiety is spiking.

If all that wasn't enough for the White House, President Trump is once again on a job hunt, for arguably the most important role in his White House, after announcing chief of staff, John Kelly, is leaving at the end of the month.

So let's get to it. CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House.

Abby, the president's, whatever everyone assumed was the president's top pick to take over as chief of staff, he's already saying he's out. He's leaving the White House. What's going on there now?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kate. It's a perilous time for this White House, as the specter of criminal investigations really looms large. The Mueller investigation is coming to a close. There are new developments when it comes to the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. And now in the midst of all this, the president is struggling to find a replacement for White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who the president announced would be leaving his post by the end of this year.

Over the weekend, sources close to the White House and in the White House believed the president's top choice was Nick Ayers, the vice president's chief of staff, but Ayers took his name out of consideration after he and the president couldn't come to an agreement on the terms. Now that has left President Trump really back to square one in terms of the search for a chief of staff. And he's having trouble finding people who are actually willing to take the job.

There are several names who have been floating around here in the West Wing as potential replacements. And let's just go through some of them. One of them being Mark Meadows, Republican lawmaker, who has been close to this White House and close to the president. But a source tells CNN's Jeff Zeleny this morning Meadows has been telling people close to him that he's absolutely not -- that's a quote -- "absolutely not," interested in taking the White House chief of staff job.

And then there's Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, whose stock is high here in the West Wing. But sources close to him have said he's happy where he is. He wants to remain at the Treasury Department where he's been working on economic matters for President Trump.

And then there's Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director, who has been sent out to put out various fires for President Trump over the last year or so. Mulvaney also, according to sources, would like to stay where he is.

So President Trump really is back to square one here. Not really finding a lot of people who are raising their hands to come in to the White House for what should be the top job in this administration, one of the most prestigious posts in Washington -- Kate?

[11:05:21] BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

Great to see you, Abby. Thank you so much.

Joining me, CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, Seung Min Kim, CNN political analyst and White House reporter for the "Washington Post," and CNN legal analyst, Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor.

It's great to see you guys.

Renato, let's talk about the president, the special counsel, and Michael Cohen now. For the first time, Mueller is saying Donald Trump ordered Cohen to commit a crime. A felony. So we're back to a core question, can you indict a president? The Justice Department has guidelines that says no. What do you say?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I do think the Justice Department is going to follow those guidelines, Kate. But first of all, the statute of limitations on the campaign finance offense does not end until late 2021. So if President Trump doesn't run for re- election or if he loses his re-election, he could be indicted after he left office.

In addition, there's at least some possibility that statute of limitations could be told in some way. I know I spoke over the weekend on my podcast with solicitor general -- former Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who thought there could be an argument that would be made, and his view, he thought it had to be, that the statute of limitation could be told. There will be a lot of legal debate about that.

If I was advising the president, I would tell him it looks to me that the southern district of New York, the federal prosecutors there, are looking to build a case and indict him.

BOLDUAN: Now, Shimon, it's really kind of an amazing moment where we are, we say every day and every week. From everything that came out on Friday, and it was a lot, does it seem that that's the direction that the Mueller team is headed?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So, it's really we're getting pieces of this crazy puzzle right now.

BOLDUAN: And it really is a real jigsaw puzzle.

PROKUPECZ: When you think about it, by our account, there are 16 people who have had contacts with Russians from the campaign or people around the president. So it's up to 16 now. And every time Mueller does another filing, we learn more. And we learned a lot, really, on Friday in terms of where the Russia investigation is. Where right now in terms of an indictment or possible charges for the president, is the U.S. attorney's office, the southern district of New York. That's where. We still have so much to learn in terms of the exposure that the president has on the Mueller investigation. But it seems that he's the central figure in all of this, right? Even the payments, certainly directed, coordinated, central figure there. The Russia investigation, central figure there. And Cohen, the revelations about the Moscow project, what these two things when you look at what the hush payments and when you look at the Moscow project and why Cohen lied about it, it was all to protect the president. And continuously what we're seeing is people consistently lied to protect the president.

So what was going on? Who knew who was lying? Was this coordinated? Was there a coordinated message between the White House and folks who worked for the president, who were going before investigators? People on the campaign, they were conscious of what was going on politically. They have said as much. So they were trying to tailor their statements so that they can protect the president. That's going to be the big issue. It falls into this conspiracy, really fraud, election fraud here, people lying to get the president elected. That's the big thing here right now.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and also a whole lot of redactions, that leave a whole lot to be still known.

Seung Min, the first thing we hear from the president, though, is this totally clears me, thank you so much. So is it the White House strategy still and only that there's nothing to see here? Is that what you're hearing?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's been the strategy for some time. We have seen over the course of the last several months how the president and his legal team have methodically tried to lower public confidence in the Mueller investigation by decrying it as a witch hunt, by calling it a band of all angry Democrats, which is not true. And what the president is saying on Friday that it totally clears the president, which is also not true. So you're going to see this tactic continue over the next several months, as the legal fight unfolds, because we just discussed, the other Analyst discussed the legal implications. But there are also political implications. If and when the impeachment issue comes up in Congress with a newly Democratic-led House, that's going to be a political fight. And the more that the president and his team can kind of discredit the charges that are coming from Mueller and coming from the southern district of New York, they think that's a card they can play. Now, that's why you have seen Democrats for now be a little careful on that big impeachment question. But it's really been a remarkable shift. A small shift, but a notable shift that we saw over the weekend after the legal filings were made public with what top senior House Democrats were saying about potential impeachment proceedings. You have Jerry Nadler on CNN over the weekend saying, while he's not -- he's not saying he's going to pursue impeachment proceedings, but he's saying, look, looking at the charges that were outlined in the filings, he says they are certainly impeachable offenses.

The more information we see from Mueller and the more information we see from the Justice Department, I think we're going to see Democrats dip their toes in the impeachment issue more so you're going to see that rhetoric from the president and his team ramp up even more as well.

[11:10:41] BOLDUAN: Yes, sure seems to go in that direction.

I'm left, from a legal perspective, I am left wondering this one thing. With everything that's come out, we now know that Michael Cohen not only misled Congress, as he admitted to, but the special counsel says he also initially lied to them about the Trump Tower Moscow deal. SDNY is recommending he still get substantial jail time. But Mueller's team says the input they got from him is credible. How do you square all of it when it comes to Michael Cohen?

MARIOTTI: Most of the cooperators I had when I was a federal prosecutor, were scumbags of one sort or another. They got in a bad situation, they had lied and committed serious crimes, and ultimately, look, they had redeeming qualities. But you know, they had done some bad things. The way that you credited their testimony was by looking at the corroborating evidence. And that's why, by the way, with the southern district of New York, that filing is so important. There's no way in heck that Rob Tisani (ph) and those experienced prosecutors in the southern district of New York would have put their reputations on the line on the say-so of Michael Cohen. So there's clearly a significant amount that's there, that's why they made those conclusions. That's why the probation department agreed with them.

BOLDUAN: Real quick, we're wrapping up the end of the year, coming fast and furious. I assume this is not the last to expect from Mueller.

PROKUPECZ: No, we have the whole Jerome Corsi issue, and Roger Stone. When you read these filings that came out on Friday, there seems to be a lot more going on, a lot more people. They don't mention people by name. This is how you know, if you're in any way mentioned in these court documents, whether you're a senior administration official or person one, person two, there are certain people we don't know about, you could be in trouble, if you think you're in the court documents. So it's clear that there's a lot more to come. The other thing on the Michael Cohen thing is there's a report, right,

even though he may not be so trustworthy, there are parts of what the Mueller team found very useful. They said it was significant. It went to the core of their investigation. So he may be helping them fill out some holes, as they prepare this report. We cannot forget about this report that's going to be coming out or that they're putting together, whether or not it becomes public. But Michael Cohen could have provided intelligence or could have closed some loose ends that they needed help with. While he may not be a credible witness in court, in terms of an investigation, they found him to be useful.

So, look, I think there's a lot to come. And we'll see. A lot of people say it could get a lot worse. We'll see. But certainly, these court documents tell us that there are a lot more people who are going to have problems.

BOLDUAN: It always seems to be prepare for Fridays.


BOLDUAN: That's what always seems to happen.

Thanks, Shimon.

Guys, thank you, Renato, Seung Min. I really appreciate it.

Coming up for us, impeachment and even imprisonment. Top Democrats are dipping their toe in the water saying both are possible for President Trump. Why? And how will the president respond?

We'll be right back.


[11:17:58] BOLDUAN: For so long, most top Democrats were hesitant to use the word "impeachment." Hesitant no more, it seems. Incoming top Democrats are now openly discussing impeachment and even jail time for President Trump based on the new court filings by the special counsel and federal prosecutors. Listen to this.


REP. JERRY NADLER, (D), NEW YORK: Well, they would be impeachable offenses. Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question. But they would be impeachable offenses because even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office. That would be an impeachable offense.


BOLDUAN: Important statement from who could be the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

CNN congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is on the Hill for us. Phil, what are you hearing from lawmakers on this?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, Kate, I think there's no question about it. Everybody who is reading through the filing, particularly, the people on the Judiciary Committee, on the Democratic side, took what they saw on Friday and were unsettled by it and thinking about what the next steps were.

It was important to also make a clear distinction about what Congressman Nadler, the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was saying. He's saying these rise to the level of impeachable offenses but he did not say they were going to immediately pursue impeachment. It's not a straight line. When you talk to Democrats, their leaders, Kate, you made the clear point, leadership has been wary of going too far into this. They recognize that it's not just a purely legal process or a purely committee process based on policy. It's also a political process. Democrats don't want to wander down a path or head down a path when they know Republicans control the Senate. They might not have Republican help in the House. Those are the metrics they're looking for right now.

One of the more interesting sound bites of the weekend came from Adam Schiff, incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He moved past Congress into what could happen if the president doesn't win re-election. Take a listen.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D), CALIFORNIA: My takeaway is there's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him. That he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.


[11:20:06] MATTINGLY: Kate, obviously, keying off the filings that the president directed the payments and, therefore, the southern district of New York may pursue criminal charges after he's no longer in office. That's where Democrats are right now. They're in a similar place to sum it up that a lot of people are. They're trying to figure out where the ground is laid right now, next steps. They're not quite ready to green-light things yet. There's no question about it, they're eyeing what they're seeing and trying to figure out what happens next -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Phil. Thank you so much.

Joining me to discuss the politics of all this, CNN political commentators, Keith Boykin, a Democratic strategic, and Rob Astorino, a member of Trump's reelection advisory council.

Great to see both of you. Sorry for the frog in all of our throats.

Keith, let's talk about impeachment here. For the longest time, it has seen top Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, they are careful to talk impeachable, And, yes, Nadler was saying if these things are true, they would be impeachable offenses. He's careful in his language. They were careful before, maybe because of the politics, maybe because they hadn't seen evidence of anything that would be impeachable. Either way, it seems something has changed over the weekend.

KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, two things have changed in the past month. First, the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives, which means next month they'll have the power for accountability. And over the weekend, on Friday, we saw that Robert Mueller's office and the southern district of New York, issued charging statements, essentially sentencing memos that implicate the president of the United States in federal crimes.

BOLDUAN: Then leads to the question of, does a campaign finance violation, does that rise to the level of impeachment of a president?

BOYKIN: There are possibilities here because, you think about the John Edwards case, there was a trial that took place in that case. In this case, we have the president of the United States engaging in a conspiracy to conceal not one but two different affairs that could have had an impact on the outcome of the election. And paying people at the same time to do so. And at the same time, engaging in a fraud to violate the campaign finance laws. And at the same time, engaging in a fraud to collude with Russia in some respect to build the Trump Tower Moscow project and not revealing that to the public. Taken together, you have a reflection of fraud on the part of the president of the United States. This is a guy who two days before he took office paid a 25 million fraud settlement for the Trump university.

BOLDUAN: Rob, Clinton was impeached by the House for perjury, for lying. How does this compare?

ROB ASTORINO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And it's a very big difference because Clinton was the president of the United States. He did lie under oath. And he abused his office. If you remember, the Republicans suffered. There was a lot of backlash. And as much as they pushed impeachment and did impeach him, Clinton just got more and more popular. This is something that happened a long time ago. He was the president. Not a single person in America probably thought --


BOLDUAN: Payments happened in 2016.


ASTORINO: I'm talking about -- for Trump, I'm talking about the women, the Stormy Daniels payoffs and everything.


BOYKIN: The legal time took place in 2016.


ASTORINO: We don't know it's illegal and the act itself took place 10 years before that.


BOLDUAN: The act maybe, but the hush payment, which is the thing that matters here, happened in late 2016.

ASTORINO: It does. If they can prove he did it specifically and solely for political purposes. Nobody in America thought he was going to win the race, number one. He had and has a business that has a reputation. He has partners, business partners. He has a family. And I think, logically, most Americans can say, OK, I can see both sides. I can see he did it for private and personal reasons just as much as he did it for political.

BOLDUAN: Let me pose this to you because this might actually get maybe to what you're saying. Former FBI Director Jim Comey was at the 92nd Street Y giving a talk last night. And let me play what he had to say about impeachment. Listen to this.


JIM COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I hope Donald Trump is not removed from office by impeachment because it would let the country off the hook. And it would drive into the fabric of our nation, a third of the people believing there was a coup, and we need a moment of inflection where we all get off the couch and say that is not who we are. And in a landslide, rid ourselves of this attack on our values.


BOLDUAN: Do you -- do you agree with Comey on this?

BOYKIN: I understand the political implications of impeachment. I understand Rob's argument about the danger of overreach of impeachment.


BOYKIN: However, I think that -- I'm not advocating for impeachment. I think there needs to be accountability, checks and balances and subpoenas and hearings to find out exactly what took place. There needs to be a thorough Robert Mueller investigation from the special counsel's office. And we also need to remember here, this is not 12 angry Democrats doing this from the southern district of New York.

ASTORINO: Thirteen.

BOYKIN: Thirteen, whatever the number is Trump has generated for the day.



[11:25:01] BOYKIN: But my point is, this is Trump's own Justice Department, Trump's own hand-picked U.S. attorneys -- (CROSSTALK)

BOYKIN: -- has implicated him in federal crimes. This is a serious offense. And wherever it leads is where it leads. If it leads to impeachment, let the chips fall where they may.

ASTORINO: If you read the sentencing documents, they trash Michael Cohen. They're sitting there saying he's deceptive.

BOLDUAN: Yes, they do.

ASTORINO: He's a bad witness. He's uncooperative.

BOLDUAN: So what?

ASTORINO: Yet, they're going to hang everything on Michael Cohen?


BOYKIN: Trump picked him as his attorney.


BOLDUAN: Clearly, you weren't listening to the top of the show, because asked the exact question.



BOLDUAN: Renato Mariotti said he's worked with a lot of scumbags --


BOLDUAN: -- that they wouldn't be a witness he would use in court, but they were credible when it comes to their investigation.

ASTORINO: Here's the point that I think Comey was trying to make, and Keith was trying to make, and I agree. If you're going to impeach, and try the president of the United States, you've got to have overwhelming support in the public like, you know what. That was something really bad.


BOLDUAN: You want to base it on polls?

ASTORINO: No, no, no. But honestly, if you're going that far, this is something most Americans would be like, you know, I don't know.


BOLDUAN: I will tell you, no matter what, Donald Trump hopes that's what a lot of Americans are thinking. That's the bottom line.

(CROSSTALK) BOYKIN: The point is -- the point is -- the point is you have to have hearings and investigations to see where it leads.


BOLDUAN: OK. I can promise you one thing.


BOLDUAN: The sun is going to rise tomorrow and there will be investigations.

BOYKIN: Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you. Thank you so much.

Breaking news I want to get to now. The Wall Street roller coaster is continuing right now. Trade tensions with -- amid trade tensions with China. The Dow down more than 400 points. We're going to go live to the stock exchange to see where this will take us today.

We'll be right back.