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U.S. Joins Russia and Saudi Arabia to Weaken Climate Change Response; White House Chief of Staff Search Continues; Legal Problems Closing in on Trump?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 15:00   ET



EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: He says that the president was -- was involved in arranging those payments to those two women.

And prosecutors, for the first time on Friday, endorsed what Michael Cohen has been saying, that the president was part of this effort to hide this from the American public, from voters, and to essentially violate federal election campaign finance laws.

Secondly, Paul Manafort, he, we learned from the court filings on Friday, had a bunch of contacts with people inside the White House, even after we knew that he was in trouble. We know that, obviously, over the years, he was in business with Russians.

And he was getting contacts with those Russians over the period of years, including during the time of the campaign. We learned that on Friday from the court filings.

And then, of course, the fact that, as a result of these court filings, we now get a sense that Robert Mueller and his investigators believe that the president is part of this larger conspiracy, the president, his family members, as well as the Trump Organization, his company.

All of this really brings home the point that if you didn't think so before Friday, it is plainly clear now that prosecutors believe the president is a target of this investigation. And so we shall see where that goes.

But back to the number 16. That's the magic number now that we have reached. This is the number of people that, as a result of our reporting, reporting of other news organizations, we can now say have had some level of contacts with Russians.

If you remember, during the campaign, even after the president took office, we heard from the White House, we heard from people that they didn't have any contacts with Russians. And these are the number of people that we have now established did have those contacts, everybody from Donald Trump Jr., who was involved in that Trump Tower meeting where they were trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, all the way down to Jared Kushner's assistant, who attended one of those meetings with the Russian ambassador, when Jared Kushner was not available. So, from having no contacts to 16 people associated with the president

who had those contacts -- Brooke.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Evan Perez, got it. You laid out the reporting for me perfectly.

And while the White House is certainly downplaying these new court filings and what it means for this president, a top House Democrat is talking about the possibility of jail time for Trump.


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.


BALDWIN: With me now, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger and Seth and Berenzweig, a business and compliance attorney.

So, welcome to both of you.

And let me -- I want to hone in on the legal first.

So, Seth, starting with you on -- there are differing opinions on this. Can you just -- can a sitting president be indicted?

SETH BERENZWEIG, ATTORNEY: Well, probably not, because the Justice Department has an informal internal policy stating that they will not indict a sitting president.

Now, there are academic arguments one way or the other as to whether or not that, as applied, is correct. But that's the reality of the environment. And I think that the painful irony of that is that these strategies that apparently the president deployed in 2016 to get to the White House, the success of those are really creating this shield that he can enjoy as a result of the fact that these strategies worked for him to be able to get into the White House.

When you take a look at the filings that happened late last week and all of these developments, you really see a pathway of lies and felonies that are stretched all the way to the front door of the White House.

And when you look at the two basic categories of what those lies are, they either have to do with sex or money, sex in terms of the felonies for violating the campaign finance laws, for all the essential consultant transactions and everything that happened down that pathway, or the lies with regard to Trump Tower Moscow and the purposefully deceptive testimony that was coordinated with the White House and then was delivered on Capitol Hill by Michael Cohen.

So it's the very lies that created that pathway to the White House that now may be creating some kind of an essential immunity from the president for being indicted at this present time.

BALDWIN: Well, you heard you know -- we played the sound with Schiff saying that he could face the prospect of jail time. He's referencing the hush money payments, the illegal hush money payments.

But, Seth, one more to you. Then, Gloria, I want to come to you. What constitutes an impeachable offense? Let's go there. Can you define that for me?


So, under the Constitution, an impeachable defense is constituting what are referred to as high crimes and misdemeanors. So let's take a look at the two laws that we just talked about a moment ago.

Down the channel of the payments for the allegedly illicit sexual activity, that's a violation of campaign finance laws. That's a felony. For the purposeful deception to investigators in the Congress and all the people that are surrounding that, that's a conspiracy and a violation of the False Statements Act.


These are felonies that constitutes what is an impeachable offense under the Constitution. And then it really drives into a political question of whether anyone on Capitol Hill is going to do anything about it.

BALDWIN: Yes, which leads me perfectly to Gloria Borger.

Let's talk Jerry Nadler, right? He's expected to be the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and this is what he said on precisely that:


REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Well, they would be impeachable offenses.

Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question. But, certainly, 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 the -- that would be an impeachable offense.

You don't necessarily launch an impeachment against the president because he committed an impeachable offense. There are several things you have to look at.

How important were they? Do they rise to the gravity where you should undertake an impeachment?

An impeachment is an attempt to, in effect, overturn or change the result of the last election. And you should do it only for very serious situations. So, that's always the question.


BALDWIN: So, it kind of sounds like we're at this place where it's like, OK, which impeachable offense is important enough?

And I know this comes down to votes, right?



Look, it's a political issue, because you're nullifying an election. And, remember, with Bill Clinton, he lied to the grand jury, but it didn't -- so he was impeached in the House, not in the Senate.


BORGER: The political reality is you would have to get about 20 Republicans to go along with it. in the Senate. I don't know that that would happen.

But I think this story has yet to play out. We don't -- you know, it's still -- it's still unraveling. And I think what Jerry Nadler is saying is right. OK, the president committed -- may have committed these felonies, lied about it to the public, and the question is, did he lie about it to Mueller?

We don't -- you know, we don't know the answer to that. We don't know the particular answers to his questions to the special counsel. So, this still has to unspool itself. So, what I think Nadler is saying is, look, right now, if we took this to the American public and said, yes, he lied about payments to these women and coordinated it with Michael Cohen or directed Michael Cohen, they could yawn and say, OK, well, we knew this about Donald Trump already, let's just move on.

But there's a lot more happening here.

BALDWIN: We're just in the foothills.

BORGER: Right. I'm sorry to tell you this, but, right, we are.


BORGER: And so we have to we have to hear more about what the president told the special counsel about it.

BALDWIN: Right, because then, once we move past the foothills, then, perhaps, if they're thinking impeachment on the Senate side, to get the 67 votes, it would need to be something perhaps more egregious.

BORGER: And were there more of those contacts with Russians?


BORGER: In the Michael -- all of the Michael Cohen paperwork, we saw that there were conversations with Trump about meeting with Putin, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.


BORGER: So, you know, we have to kind of watch this unfold and see if the president is among those many people who were lying about this.

BALDWIN: The other kind of complicating factor to all of this is the statute of limitations, Seth. So I pivot back to you.


BALDWIN: The statute of limitations, campaign finance violation, five years. So it's simple math, right?


BALDWIN: If this happened in 2016 and if Trump wins in 2020, serves another four years, equals statute of limitations has run out.

So if he is reelected, Seth, would that be his -- essentially his get- out-of-jail-free card?

BERENZWEIG: Well, it could be. But I will tell you what the counter legal argument is. They will obviously -- Rudy Giuliani and company will argue that that is just going to be literally a get-out-of-jail- free card, in that that's going to beat the statue of limitations issues.

However, there is a legal doctrine called tolling, which states that if somebody creates a wrongful situation that is inequitable that causes a delay in their facing justice, such as a CEO committing fraud and concealing crimes against people who are then victims, then the statute of limitations could be tolled for the period of time for which they are artificially protected.

So the question is this. Can the prosecutors allege successfully that the statute of limitations is tolled for a sitting president because he has created a felonious pathway to the White House in a manner that artificially protects him under the statute of limitations?

I think that's a legitimate legal issue. Naturally, it's never been argued, but I think it will be teed up at some point, potentially.

BALDWIN: OK. OK. Again, we're in the foothills, but this is just perhaps, perhaps foreshadowing.

One thing, I think, Gloria, too, that was overlooked on the whole Friday news dump was on Manafort and his -- the fact that he had been in touch with the White House as late as spring of this year.



BALDWIN: I know you don't have the answer to this, but I'm just going to ask you anyway. BORGER: I want it. Yes.

BALDWIN: Who do you think -- who do you think he could have been talking to?

BORGER: You know, it's -- we're -- as you know, Brooke, we're reporting this right now. We're trying to figure out with whom Manafort communicated.

What I -- and we don't -- we just don't know the answer to that yet, so I'm not even going to hazard a guess.


BORGER: But what I can tell you is, what was he communicating? Here are the questions we need the answers to also. Was he communicating with the White House in an effort to get their stories straight and let them know he was cooperating, so that perchance he might get a pardon at some point?

I mean, the substance of those conversations is almost as important as the name of the person he was speaking with, because we need to -- we need to know -- first of all, he lied about it. But why did he lie about it? Well, it must have been really important enough that he had to know he might get caught, right?

They had text messages and everything else. So was he doing this to protect himself and to coordinate and to then get out of jail free, get a get-out-of-jail-free card? And we don't know the answer to that either. But we have to ask those questions, because they make a lot of sense.

BALDWIN: Keep digging. Gloria Borger, Seth Berenzweig, guys, thank you both so much.

BORGER: Yes. Sure.

BALDWIN: Great conversation.

As the president faces all of this mounting legal pressure, he is also trying to convince someone to take the job as his new White House chief of staff. Already, several of his closest allies have declined.

Also, the U.S. is teaming up with Russia and the Saudis as part of this effort to weaken the global response to a dire climate change report. We have details on this major scientific setback.

And thousands and thousands of women could be missing a key genetic test for breast cancer -- why researchers are now saying the current screening guidelines are totally out of date. Do not miss this.

We will be right back.


[15:16:20] BALDWIN: We're back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Just in: One person is emerging as a front-runner for President Trump's next chief of staff. The question is, though, if offered, would he take it?

A source familiar with the search says Republican Congressman Mark Meadows is viewed favorably to replace John Kelly because Meadows and Trump see eye to eye on so many policy issues. But in a matter of hours today, a Republican close to Meadows says that he was -- quote -- "absolutely not interested."

To Meadow's office later released a statement saying serving in the role would be an incredible honor. Three others on Trump's short list, Nick Ayers, Steve Mnuchin and Mick Mulvaney, all saying, no thanks.

Whoever gets the job will inherit a West Wing engulfed in scandal, the Russia investigation, new Democratic House come next year, 2020 reelection, impeachment drama, reining in Trump, just to name a few.

Olivia Nuzzi covers Washington for "New York Magazine," and she was actually in the White House in the thick of the Oval Office and with Nick Ayers and discussing who could be the next chief of staff.

And so we will get into that in just a second and all your reporting, but first things first.

Being the chief of staff, it's kind of a majorly sought-after job.


BALDWIN: Previously. On previous episodes of administrations.


BALDWIN: Is it Trump? Is it, you know, just what they'd be walking into? Is it both? Why are folks not as interested?

NUZZI: I think it's, C, all of the above here.


NUZZI: I think, previously, it's not really worked out well for chief of staffs in this administration. We saw what happened to Reince Priebus. We saw what happened now to John Kelly. These are two people -- more so with John Kelly -- who came in with great reputations, were considered very respectable, and now being the subject of all of these palace intrigue stories, people attacking John Kelly's character.

I think he's leaving with a really diminished respectability. And I think that people don't want to come in to this very high-pressure job and be under attack. It's one of the most high-profile jobs in this White House. And they know that they will be the subject of all sorts of palace intrigue stories, and also of Trump's irritation. People who are around him tend to be viewed less favorably than

advisers on the outside. He always wants what he can't have.

BALDWIN: He wants what he can't have.

What about -- so Nick Ayers, you and I were talking not too long ago about -- you had spoken with him yourself. And you can tell me about that conversation, but 36-year-old, you know, maybe not that household name, but someone who has a pretty impressive resume, apparently wanted the job, and then has now turned it down. What do you know about that?

NUZZI: Well, my -- I had started to hear that it was overstated how badly Trump actually wanted him in the job.

I do know that he was offered the job in late June of this year. That is something that the president and Nick Ayers both denied to me during my Oval Office interview with Trump in mid-October, but I believe that to be the case, nevertheless, regardless of what they said.

He also said that there was no chaos in the White House, that John Kelly would stay on through 2020. I think it's a very high-pressure job, he has a young family, but I also just think that Trump -- I had begun to hear that he was a bit frustrated that Nick Ayers was kind of putting himself out there as the likely front-runner, the likely choice, when that was not necessarily the case.

And we have seen this happen before, where Trump gets very frustrated when things are reported as an imminent decision, and will then seek to undo whatever the decision was or make a different choice, so that he doesn't confirm the reporting, it seems like, at times.

BALDWIN: One of the pieces we have at CNN, a source tells CNN there was resistance to Nick Ayers specifically being appointed because of Melania Trump and members of senior staff.


And we have talked before about, there's some folks within the White House who are not big fans of Nick Ayers, but one of them being Melania Trump.

NUZZI: Right.

BALDWIN: Which is just interesting, factoring in she had spoken up about a different position within the last two months. And, you know, you cover Melania Trump as well, and I'm just curious what you think of her impact or her influence.

NUZZI: Well, I think that she is certainly someone who the president speaks to.

I think she has more influence than maybe we have previously thought that she did. I'll defer to CNN's reporting on that. I don't have anything to confirm that myself at this moment. But it doesn't surprise me. He doesn't have very many people around

him anymore who he trusts. He's lost a lot of close advisers over the last year, year-and-a-half. And it doesn't surprise me that she is having a lot of influence on his decision-making.

BALDWIN: And the timeline, you're hearing, for a replacement is?

NUZZI: I hear -- I spoke to a White House official just before we came on air here, and I'm hearing that they believe that it will be anywhere from this week to a month from now, but they also say that, with Trump, you just never know.

BALDWIN: Olivia Nuzzi, good to see you.

NUZZI: Good to see you.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

NUZZI: Thanks.

BALDWIN: Next: The U.S. refuses to endorse the science behind a dire report on climate change. Bill Weir is live in California, where the aftermath of the wildfires proves just how dangerous it can be. We will go to Bill.

And she is accused of being a Russian spy, infiltrating Republican political circles, but now she may be ready to talk.



BALDWIN: Yet another sign the Trump administration is hardening its rejection of climate science.

At an international summit in Poland over the weekend, the U.S. joined Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in dismissing the findings of a landmark climate report that warns of the urgent need to address global warming or face dire consequences.

Climate scientists are warning wildfires like the ones -- the one that destroyed Paradise, California, last month are a sign of what is to come.

And our CNN correspondent Bill Weir is with me now.

And you were in Paradise. You have talked to scientists who study wildfires. You're there now. What are they telling you?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, think about it this way, given the news you just reported, Brooke.

If, when they evacuated, when sheriff's deputies and firefighters said, please, get out of this valley, get out of Butte County, it's burning, what would have happened, how high would the death toll be if hundreds of those people said, no, we should stay and debate whether there is actually a fire?

And the scientists feel the same frustration. They're trying to give the same warning, that this is the beginning. This is just a taste of what's ahead, unless human beings figure out different ways to live and power their lives.

So, yes, I heard the warning is not just people connecting the dots scientifically to what the future is, but first-responders who are going to have to deal with it.


WEIR (voice-over): A month ago it was Paradise. But after the deadliest American wildfire in 100 years, it is now mostly ash and rubble and melted metal, with 85 souls lost and thousands homeless.

This Camp Fire is the costliest in California history. But if not for the pure heroes of helpers, both in and out of uniform, the death toll could have been so much worse, like Butte County Sheriff's Deputy Parmley, who activated his body camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, that's not good.

WEIR: Not sure he'd even survive.



KORY HONEA, BUTTE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, SHERIFF: He honestly believed that he was recording the last moments of his life. And, in his mind, he thought that perhaps the video would survive.

WEIR: But, somehow, all first-responders survived.

RICK MANSON, CAL FIRE: I found an elderly woman standing on the side of the road. And I only found her because I got tangled in some power lines that I had to cut.

WEIR: And somehow they helped the city of 27,000 evacuate or shelter in place, surrounded by blowing flames, on gridlocked roads and thanks to melting pipes, no water.

SIMS HAWKINS, BATTALION CHIEF, CAL FIRE: As I opened my door, the embers are blowing inside my truck. I'm thinking my truck's going to catch on fire. Shut the door. Run to the screaming I hear. I mean it was an elderly couple cuddling each other.

WEIR: There are thousands of stories like this, making Paradise a symbol of community sacrifice and survival.

The biggest cleanup in state history is underway. And when the lines are up and safe, neighbors will be back up and safe, neighbors will be back helping neighbors sift through what's left.

(on camera): But those who study fire and water, wind and climate say Paradise should be a warning.

In fact, on Black Friday, while this fire was still burning, the Trump administration put out the most frightening climate forecast in American history. Over 300 scientists from NASA, NOAA, the Pentagon, Smithsonian all agreeing that unless things change, this is just the beginning.

(voice over): But when asked about the report...


WEIR: ... and its prediction of economic devastation:

TRUMP: Yes, I don't believe it. No, no, I don't believe it.

DR. FAITH KEARNS, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA WATER INSTITUTE: You know, climate change doesn't really care if you believe in it or not, right? It's reality. We have gravity. We have climate change.

WEIR: Dr. Faith Kearns is a scientist at the University of California.


WEIR: And Don Hankins teaches the geography of fire at Cal State Chico.