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White House Chief of Staff Search Continues; Legal Problems Closing in on Trump?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Smock 'em if you got 'em.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Prosecutors tie President Trump to federal crimes for the very first time, as a key lawmaker says there is a serious chance the president could end up in the big house if he loses the White House.

Also, as the legal trouble piles up in front of this president, there are new questions about who will run the West Wing, after President Trump shows General Kelly the door, and no one else seems to necessarily want the job.

Plus, "I can't breathe," a "Washington Post" journalist's final words as he's butchered at the hands of the Saudi regime. And a new report claims the president's son-in-law was cushy with the crown prince even after the murder.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead.

President Trump, under increasing pressure, is continuing to try and discredit the federal law enforcement investigation into how Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and whether the president obstructed that investigation.

Today, again, on Twitter, the president called special counsel Robert Mueller's probe a witch-hunt. He did it in all caps, so you know he really means it. The president has been trying to spin the newly released memos by Mueller and federal prosecutors by falsely claiming this all -- quote -- "totally clears the president" -- unquote.

The truth is the exact opposite. Mueller and prosecutors seem to be providing us with clues as to where this all might be headed, with key information about Individual 1, better known as President Donald J. Trump.

Let's start with the Russia probe. We have now learned that the Trump Tower Moscow project, the one that the president and his team lied about throughout 2016, is considered by Mueller directly relevant to the Russia investigation. Mueller's sentencing memo about former Trump fixer Michael Cohen reads

-- quote -- "The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1, Donald Trump, well into the campaign, was material to the ongoing congressional and special counsel investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election" -- unquote.

Mueller decried Cohen's -- quote -- "false statements" that obscured the fact that the Moscow project was a lucrative business opportunity, hundreds of millions of dollars, he estimates, that sought and likely required the assistance of the Russian government.

Now, that's interesting, because you know who else made false statements to the public about the Moscow project?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals in Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we have stayed away.


TAPPER: Which brings us to Mueller's second clue. In these documents, Mueller draws a line and asserts that false statements made to the public about Russia could potentially be seen as obstruction of justice, an attempt to limit the investigation, saying when Cohen lied about the Moscow project -- quote -- "Cohen deliberately shifted the timeline of what occurred in the hopes of limiting the investigation into possible Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. presidential election."

So those are two warnings for President Trump and his attorneys. A third warning came from the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. For the very first time, President Trump was directly implicated by prosecutors in federal crimes.

Acting U.S. Attorney Rob Khuzami all but naming the president an unindicted co-conspirator in two campaign finance felonies in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election, two hush money payments to two women alleging affairs with the president in which Cohen -- quote -- "acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1," AKA, President Trump.

The president today called the payments a -- quote -- "simple, private transaction," but, in fact, prosecutors describe the transactions that were complicated, illegal schemes involving a magazine editor, the purchase of life rights, two different shell corporations, false invoices, and nondisclosure agreements, which, as prosecutors put it -- quote -- "all of which deceived the voting public."

So, totally clears the president? The only image that seems clear to us is the potential constitutional crisis towards which we all seem to be heading.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now.

Jessica, it is hard to see how the Southern District of New York implicating the president in the commission of two felonies clears him in any sense of the words.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, this filing far from clears the president. And, in fact, this criminal allegation out of New York seems to have given the green light to key members of Congress to also look into whether the president's alleged involvement in campaign finance violations, whether it's also an impeachable offense.



SCHNEIDER (voice-over): For the first time, prosecutors are implicating the president in a crime, accusing then candidate Donald Trump of directing illegal campaign contributions to silence two women who claimed affairs with Trump, all in an effort to influence the 2016 election.

Prosecutors in New York telling the judge: "As Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1."

Individual 1 referring to President Trump, though he's not directly named in the filing. And with the latest revelation, the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee telling Jake on "STATE OF THE UNION" the president's conduct pre-election could set the stage for impeachment.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: I think what these indictments and filings show is that the president was at the center of a massive fraud -- several massive frauds against the American people.

Certainly, they would be impeachable offenses. Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.

SCHNEIDER: Now that the president's actions are fully detailed in criminal filings, the president is lashing out on Twitter, calling the payouts a simple, private transaction, saying Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced, witch-hunt.

The president once said he knew nothing about the payouts to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to secure their silence about alleged affairs.

QUESTION: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No. No.

SCHNEIDER: But audio obtained from September 2016 later showed Trump was fully involved.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

COHEN: ... funding. Yes. And it's all the stuff.

SCHNEIDER: The president's business and his family members may also be implicated in the future. New York federal prosecutors have continued to investigate the Trump Organization based on information in the charges against Cohen, CNN has reported.

In their filing, federal prosecutors in New York said that Cohen met with prosecutors to discuss the participation of others in the campaign finance crimes. "The New York Times" reports that New York prosecutors have also examined the statute of limitations on campaign finance violations and believe that charges could possibly be brought against the president if he is not reelected to a second term.


SCHNEIDER: But the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says the filings from Friday showed no evidence implicating the president and also that those payments to the two women weren't campaign contributions anyway.

And, Jake, as for Michael Cohen, he will be sentenced on Wednesday, and prosecutors have recommended four to five years in prison, but, of course, ultimately, it's up to the judge.

TAPPER: That's right. Southern District of New York saying that he has not been cooperative. Mueller saying he has. Kind of a split decision there.

Thank you so much, Jessica Schneider.

So President Trump's reaction to this has been his typical style. He first said he was totally cleared, which he hasn't been. This morning, he says there is no smocking gun. That's an interesting word choice. And that the payments were a simple private transaction.

Now, given that we understand that his messaging appeals to his base, I want to know, you as a communications expert, whether you think this is good messaging for what is to come for President Trump.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, no, because his base is a certain percentage of the population, as we all know. But in order to win reelection, which is certainly front and foremost in his mind, as it should be, he needs to continue to win over independents and continue to win over people in the country who gave him a chance last time.

And he's saying there's -- you know, they got me off the hook here -- not got me off the hook, but...

TAPPER: Totally cleared me.

PSAKI: I'm totally cleared. That's easy to disprove. And we know there is certainly more to come.

So, yes, dangerous, because people can replay. It will be in campaign commercials in the future, if we get to a campaign of, of him, saying, I'm off the hook, when there's a lot more to come, as we know.

TAPPER: I guess the big question, of course, is how do Republicans in the House and Senate, how are they going to take this? Because ultimately if there is impeachment, they are the ones that are going to have to vote.

I asked Marco Rubio, Republican senator from Florida, what he thought the repercussions should be if it is proven -- and it's not yet been -- if it has been proven that the president directed Michael Cohen to commit felonies to influence the election.

Here's Senator Rubio's response.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: if someone has violated the law, the -- the application of the law should be applied to them, like it would to any other citizen in this country. And, obviously, if you're in a position of great authority, like the presidency, that would be the case.

I don't know if it's going to reach that point or not. We have to wait and see. But my -- my decision on that or my position on that will not be a political decision. It'll be the fact that we are a nation of laws, and no one in this country, no matter who you are, is above it.


TAPPER: What do you think?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he understands where Republicans are vulnerable, so he's charting out clear ground.

I think a lot of Republicans could make the case that the president should not be impeached and thrown out of office because of a couple of payments. The problem, though, is that Michael Cohen is going to go to jail for this.


So how do you say Michael Cohen should go to jail for committing crimes the president directed him to and letting Trump off the hook? That's the problem.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, because we don't know if the president directed him to do it. Right?


TAPPER: The U.S. attorney is saying it happened. URBAN: So Michael Cohen, we can run enough tape on the show to eat up

the next hour Michael Cohen as praising Donald Trump as the best guy, the most honest guy, right? So they're going to show that to a jury.

They're say, you are now lying now, you are lying then, right?


CARPENTER: But the jury for the president is in the House.


URBAN: So, the second thing is, as you point out, and Gloria pointed out before earlier in the show, people are going to watch the tape. They're going to see that and they're going to say, you shouldn't overturn an election because of that.

That's not something you're going to overturn an election based on, those two payments. If it gets to be something more grandiose someplace down the road on real Russian collusion, where there's big, big, big items -- I'm not saying these aren't big. Obviously, these are felonies.

But Gloria earlier in the hour before this said, look, she thinks a lot of this is baked in. A lot of it was baked into the election.

TAPPER: What's interesting about that is that's also what I'm hearing from House Democrats. They are not running to talk...

URBAN: You saw Jerry Nadler.

TAPPER: Yes, they are not running towards about impeachment about this.


TAPPER: They're keeping their powder dry, as it were.

JEAN-PIERRE: I think they are keeping their powder dry.

Look, I think Republicans talk about impeachment more than Democrats do. We certainly didn't run on it. We talked about keeping the checks and balances, having oversight on this president and making sure we talked about real issues.

We're at the beginning. We're still at the beginning of this investigation. We're not at the end yet. And I think we should wait to see what Mueller eventually finds at the end.

But what you were saying, David, about Cohen and him saying we can run tapes for hours and hours, but I don't think the U.S. attorney's office is just sitting on his words only. I think they have some collaborating evidence.


JEAN-PIERRE: We will find out. I don't think it's just Cohen's word.


CARPENTER: ... Cohen was very tough, and the prosecutors made the case that this just wasn't a payment, run-of-the-mill campaign finance violation. It was an elaborate scheme to keep information from voters that may have possibly changed the election.

URBAN: What, that he had two affairs?


JEAN-PIERRE: But it's fraud.


JEAN-PIERRE: It's defrauding the people.


URBAN: I don't know in the history of politics, has that happened before? Because I'm guessing it had.


PSAKI: Ultimately, the president has been implicated in a felony here, but we have all been numbed, including Congress.


PSAKI: Including Democrats in Congress, to a degree.

And they are making a political calculation, which is what impeachment is, because their objective is to get Donald Trump out of office. So how do you do that? Maybe there's going to be more from Mueller to impeach him. Maybe it's the election. We don't know yet. But they're making a calculation that the public has baked this in and they're not ready to move forward with that yet.

TAPPER: And, Amanda, take a listen to the likely next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: 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.

We have been discussing the issue of pardons that the president may offer to people or dangle in front of people. The bigger pardon question may come down the road, as the next president has to determine whether to pardon Donald Trump.


CARPENTER: Yes. Sure. There's a lot of scenarios possible.

But I think what he's getting at, is how do you punish a president for a crime, if he can't be indicted, if you're not going to impeach him? Because I think a lot of people don't think this rises to a level of impeachment.

Could I see this introduced in articles of impeachment as one case? Perhaps. But they know, if they're going to try to remove the president, they're going to have to have something a lot stronger than this. So I think he's saying, we may not go here now, but once he's out of office, then he can be prosecuted.

URBAN: In the last impeachment of the president of the United States, my former boss, right, Arlen Specter, who then went on to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, penned an op-ed that ran in "The New York Times" very prominently and was used during the impeachment.

It said, don't impeach Bill Clinton. He should be tried after he leaves office. That's the proper way to do it. And so there is precedent for that to be talked about. And Schiff is right.

TAPPER: Do you think he should be impeached for this, or do you follow more maybe perhaps the Adam Schiff proposal of just wait until he's out of office and then you can go at him?

JEAN-PIERRE: I think we should wait to see what Mueller brings forth and what the report tells us.

TAPPER: Yes, but, I mean, on the specific Southern District of New York allegations about, you know, assuming they're true, assuming they're proven -- I'm not talking about Mueller.


JEAN-PIERRE: Yes, SDNY, yes, the payments.

Look, I think that there is a question on defrauding the American people, right, right before the election. We should really look into that. And if it rises to the level and there's more that comes out that leads us to impeachment, yes, I think the House Democrats and Republicans as well should seriously think about that.

TAPPER: All right. We have a lot more to talk about. Everyone, stick around.

Not one, not two, not even 10. The number of people in Trump's world who had contact with Russians continues to grow. That's next.

Plus, one of the most prestigious jobs in the White House now available. Is David Urban going to take it?


TAPPER: Some of the top candidates seem to be saying, thanks, but no thanks.

Stick around to find out more.


[16:19:01] TAPPER: Sticking with politics.

At least 16 -- that's the number of Trump campaign officials or people in President Trump's orbit who had some form of interaction or contact with Russians during the 2016 presidential race by CNN's count. It's all part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into whether anyone associated with Mr. Trump may have conspired with the Russian government to impact the race.

CNN's Alex Marquardt picks up the story.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They are among the biggest names in the Trump orbit. The children, the campaign chairman, former attorney general, 16 people associated with Donald Trump who had contact with Russians during the campaign and in the White House.

Among the key contacts, Donald Jr. set up a meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower.


MARQUARDT: Fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, called the Russian ambassador to discuss sanctions.

And former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, lied about his contacts with a Russian connected to the intelligence services.

In the months after the election, Trump and senior officials repeatedly denied any contacts took place.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was no collusion between us and Russia. I watched the news this morning --

MARQUARDT: But tonight, there is renewed focus on the Trump team's dealings with Moscow after the special counsel's office told a court that it sees significance in Michael Cohen negotiating to build a Trump Tower in Russia while the Kremlin was meddling in the U.S. election.

Mueller's team alleging the Trump Organization's project in Russia, worth hundreds of millions of dollars and continued as Trump ran for president, was a lucrative business opportunity that sought and likely required the assistance of the Russian government. Meanwhile, ahead of Paul Manafort's sentencing, the special counsel's office revealed that Manafort continued to reach out to the Trump administration after he was indicted and struck a plea deal and then lied about it.

Why he tried to contact them is unclear. For many Republicans, none of this is relevant to the president or matters.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I'm absolutely against it. I think it's a miscarriage of justice and we should not have special prosecutors going after one person.

MARQUARDT: Others, like Senator Marco Rubio, defending Mueller against calls for him to be fired.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I've said repeatedly, I believe that Mr. Mueller's probe should continue and move forward unimpeded. Both of those findings will be there before the American public. We'll see what it all shows when put together and we'll move on from there and see what needs to be done.


MARQUARDT: And, Jake, the former FBI director, James Comey, was also asked about the possibility of firing Robert Mueller. He told the Judiciary Committee that firing Mueller would not stop the investigations. That in order to do that, he said, you would almost have to fire everyone at the FBI and Justice Department -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with Kim Wehle, former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation and a former federal prosecutor. Which of these contacts with Russians is most concerning for President Trump, if any of them?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSOCIATE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL IN THE WHITEWATER INVESTIGATION: Well, there are so many of them, it's difficult. And we're only seeing a small slice of all of the information that they know. But now we've got Manafort, we've got Cohen, we have contacts not only leading up to the campaign, we have contacts during the transition. And we have contacts since the Mueller investigation has started.

So we have potential, for lack of a better word, collusion, conspiracy, problems in that regard, as well as obstruction of justice, maybe witness tampering. We just don't know because so little has come out. But the presumption would be there's a lot of evidence supporting this or even going further.

TAPPER: So we know Michael Cohen lied about his contacts with Russians and President Trump regarding possible Trump Tower Moscow, 2016. Mueller said those lies, quote, deliberately shifted the timeline of what had occurred in the hopes of limiting the investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an issue of heightened national interest.

Now, I'm a layman, not a lawyer. But to me, that seems to suggest that Mueller might think that lying to the public also can be construed as obstruction of justice.

WEHLE: Well, certainly lying to the public could be a shot across the bow with respect to impeachment. But I think the issue there has to do with motive, right? Why is everyone lying? If there was an agreement, basically, for a quid pro quo that I'll give you, you know, Trump Tower, I'll give you Putin, give you a suite at the top, give you maybe some -- ease up some Russian sanctions and in exchange you're going to help me with the dirt on Hillary Clinton, you help me in other ways.

So that intent question can lead to a series of potential criminal charges, not just for people -- the individuals involved, but also potentially for the Trump Organization. And if it's the latter with respect to some crimes, it's easier to prove intent than it is with respect to an individual.

TAPPER: In the filing, we also learned that in November 2015, Cohen spoke with an unidentified Russian national claiming to be a trusted person, offering the campaign, quote, political synergy and synergy on a government level, even pushing for a meeting between Putin and Trump. What do you glean from that?

WEHLE: Yes, that's stunning, presumably. If it's in quotes, that comes from some other source, so my guess is these prosecutors aren't just relying on Cohen's statement. So, again, this is a question of quid pro quo. We'll get political synergy. To me that speaks to something that is certainly not in the interest of the American public. It's not in the interest of American democracy.

And the big overhang here is the fact that as voters, we vote based on public information. There's no background checks for a presidential candidate. That the FBI doesn't do what it did for Brett Kavanaugh, for example. So if we don't know what's going on, we can't vote willingly. That's really a problem for the broader question of democracy.

TAPPER: All right. Kim Wehle, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

With John Kelly on his way out, President Trump is looking to change the focus of the White House chief of staff. The new goal for one of the most powerful positions in Washington, that's next. Stay with us.


[16:29:11] TAPPER: And we have some breaking news for you in the politics lead. A new name is emerging as a top contender to replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff. A source close to the White House is telling CNN that former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is now considered a strong option as others seem to be rushing to take their names out of the running, possibly unwilling to take on the firestorms that are waiting.

Let's go to CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, the job of White House chief of staff used to elevate people, but with Reince Priebus and John Kelly, arguably, it actually diminished their reputations.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And you better bet that's a big factor being considered by people whose names are now being floated. Jake, what's complicating this search is that it essentially got started 24 hours ago. Because President Trump did not think Nick Ayers was going to decline this job, and there was no backup. Now old names are being floated and essentially it is a free for all in Washington for who is going to be the next chief of staff.