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Live From The Oval Office: Trump Spars With Top Dems On TV; GOP In Unity Brushes Aside Trump Hush Money Payments; Aide: Pelosi Said Wall Is "A Manhood Thing" For Trump; Report: Trump Calls Campaign Contacts With Russia "Peanut Stuff;" Reuters: Trump Says Hush Payments Were Not Campaign Contribution. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired December 11, 2018 - 19:00   ET


[19:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OUTFRONT next, live from the Oval Office, the President goes off the rails. Cameras rolling as Trump gets into a shouting match and says he's proud to shut down the government.

Plus, Republicans brushing aside accusations from prosecutors that implicate the President in two felonies. Wait until you hear what they said when it was Bill Clinton. The tapes are stunning.

And no plan B for a chief of staff for Trump. One man, though, reportedly on the list of candidates is OUTFRONT tonight. Does he want the job? Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, making a joke of the Oval Office, President Trump turning a private meeting public, letting the cameras in, putting on what he does best, a reality show. It had a shouting match, finger pointing, the full deal here, take a look.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No we don't have the votes, Nancy, because in the Senate we need 60 votes and we don't have it.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, MINORITY LEADER OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: No, no, but in the House, you could bring it up right now.

TRUMP: Yes, but I can't. Excuse me.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: And you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.

TRUMP: I -- no, no, no, no, no. The last time, Chuck, you shut it down --

SCHUMER: No, no, no.

TRUMP: -- and then you opened it up very quickly. SCHUMER: Twenty times. Twenty times.

TRUMP: And I don't want to do what you did.


BURNETT: The President turning a conversation with Democratic leaders into, well, it turned into this. The broken record rant about the wall.


PELOSI: You do not have the votes in the House.

TRUMP: Nancy, I do, and we need border security.

PELOSI: Well, let's take the vote and we'll find out.

TRUMP: Nancy, Nancy, we need border security. It's very simple.

PELOSI: Of course we do.

TRUMP: People are pouring into our country, including terrorists. We have terrorists. We caught 10 terrorists over the last very short period of time.

SCHUMER: Twenty times you were called for I will shut down the government if I don't get my wall. None of us have said.

TRUMP: You want to know something?

SCHUMER: You've said it.

TRUMP: OK. I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country, so I will take the mantle.


BURNETT: OK. Why the big show today? Well, this is what the President's been waking up to over the past couple days, right, the headlines referring to accusations from prosecutors that implicate the President of the United States in two felonies related to hush money payments to alleged mistresses. And tonight, Republicans are aiding and abetting President Trump in acting like these accusations of felonies do not matter.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On Friday night federal prosecutors implicated the President in two crimes. Do you have any concerns about that?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: I don't have any observations to make about that.

REP. TOM REED (R), NEW YORK: I don't agree with the assumption that he's been accused of a crime. I don't see that here. I see that --

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: He's been implicated. He's been implicated. Michael Cohen --

REED: I disagree with that.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I don't care. All I can say is he's doing a good job as president.


BURNETT: And Republican Senator John Kennedy, who will join me in just a moment, is pointing the finger at the messenger, Michael Cohen.


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Jesus loves him but everybody else thinks he's an idiot.


BURNETT: Referring to Michael Cohen. These defenses of President Trump are a complete reversal for the GOP. You know, you just heard Orrin Hatch, right? Now he says I don't care. But when he voted to impeach President Clinton, Senator Orrin Hatch said, "This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes but it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake, then breaks the law to cover it up."

OK. Now, Mitch McConnell says he doesn't have any, quote, observations on the President being implicated in two crimes. But wow, Mitch McConnell thinks were so different when Clinton was president.


MCCONNELL: Our nation is indeed at a cross roads. Will we pursue the search for truth or will we dodge, weave, and evade the truth? I'm of course referring to investigation into serious allegations of illegal conduct by the President of the United States, that the President has engaged in a persistent pattern and practice of obstruction of justice. The allegations are grave. The investigation is legitimate. And ascertaining the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the unqualified, un-evasive truth is absolutely critical.


BURNETT: I'm sorry. There's nothing you can say after that, is there?

All right, Kaitlan Collins is OUTFRONT live outside the White House.

I mean, Kaitlan, the President tonight trying to force the felony headline off the front page, right? But he does appear to be serious about shutting the government down. What are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He's very serious and he later doubled down on what he said in a second Oval Office appearance today after that contentious fight. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were long gone, back to Capitol Hill, but President Trump said he stands by what he said, and if there is a government shutdown, that he is going to own it.

Now, Nancy Pelosi went back to Capitol Hill and when she was meeting privately with some of her Democratic colleagues, she said she couldn't believe that they got President Trump on camera, essentially saying that he is going to own that shutdown, because that's exactly what they wanted him to say and that's music to their ears. But it is not what Republicans on Capitol Hill wanted to hear from the President.

Now, this meeting today wasn't expected to produce any magic and have them come to an agreement on what to do over the border wall because they've obviously got these very different positions. But it also gave us a preview, Erin, of what the next two years are going to look like and that very striking power dynamic that we're about to see in Washington.

[19:05:16] And as Nancy Pelosi later said while she was still in front of the White House, she said she does not think that President Trump is prepared for what it's going to look like when newly empowered Democrats take over the House come January.

BURNETT: All right. Kaitlan, thank you very much.

And I want to go now to the Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, member of the Judiciary Committee. Senator, a lot to talk to you about. I want to start, though, with what Kaitlan is reporting on. You know, the spectacle we saw in the Oval Office today and the President saying, you know, his words, point-blank, he's proud to shut down the government over the wall. Are you OK with that?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: I'm not OK with calling it a spectacle, Erin. I, frankly, kind of appreciated -- not kind of, I did appreciate the transparency. I've been in a lot of meetings like that and those kind of tough meetings among people that just disagree are pretty standard on Capitol Hill. I think the American people can handle it.

BURNETT: So, when he says he's proud to shut down the government over the wall, you don't think that was showboating or grandstanding? You take it face value, you think he's going to do it.

KENNEDY: I can't speak for the President and give you my perspective. I don't want to see government shut down. I think we ought to surprise ourselves and try to do something intelligent and try to work it out. Having said that, I don't think the President's bluffing, as I said earlier today, if I were playing poker right now with the President, and I saw his facial expressions and his attitude across the table when I didn't have the cards, I'd fold them because I don't think he's bluffing. Now, you can debate whether that's good policy or bad policy.

BURNETT: OK, what do you think? Are you OK with it? I mean, back to that question. Are you OK with him shutting down the government over the wall?

KENNEDY: It depends on what about the wall that we shut it down over. I don't think there's any reason to shut the government down. I think that's got --

BURNETT: What do you mean what about the wall, I mean, the wall?

KENNEDY: I think that the $5 billion request by the President is a perfectly reasonable request. I think that illegal or legal immigration is very good for our country. I think illegal immigration isn't. I think walls work.


KENNEDY: They're working in San Diego. They're working in El Paso. They're working in Yuma. They're working in Israel. They're working in Bulgaria. They're working in India. They're working in Saudi Arabia. Walls work.

And if you believe in the rule of law --


KENNEDY: -- and you support legal immigration, and you think as I do, that illegal immigration undermines it, then you should support the wall. I'm not suggesting, Erin, that all the people that want to come to our country are bad people. Many of them are good people. Not all of them. Some of them are terrorists and drug dealers and members of gangs, but the point is that every country that I know of has a border and they enforce it.

BURNETT: So, when President Trump, apparently, we are told, because then the cameras were off, then he was apparently told Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Mexican government has now come out and said to CNN, "Mexico's position regarding the so-called wall is the same. The previous government had. Mexico will not pay for it no matter how you spin it."

So I just want to be clear, Senator, you are fine with American taxpayers paying for this wall and President Trump shutting down the government over this wall.

KENNEDY: I am -- no. I didn't say that, Erin. What I said was that I support border security. I think walls work. And I would like to see the President sit down which -- with, I think, soon to be Speaker Pelosi who I think is calling the shots here.

I don't -- on this issue, I don't think Chuck's involved, really. I think its Speaker Pelosi. I think on this issue, if you turn Speaker Pelosi upside down and shook her, Chuck would fall out of her pocket on this one. I think she's taken the lead and I think we ought to try to work it out but I would like to see -- let me put it another way, Erin. I haven't heard any arguments from Speaker Pelosi as to why a wall would not enhance border security.

BURNETT: OK. KENNEDY: I've heard political arguments whether --

BURNETT: I will simply say because I know we want to talk about a lot and I just say this to put this out there because I want to make sure our viewers know. The Republican Congressman who represent the districts along the wall do not support a wall in this way so I'm just -- I'm putting it out there. It's not just Nancy Pelosi, it's not just Democrats. There's plenty of Republicans who live right there along what would be a wall who don't think it's a good idea.

I don't want to debate the wall for the whole interview. I just put that out there. I want to give you a chance to respond to this issue of campaign finance felonies, right? Prosecutors are implicating the President in two of these possible finance felonies.

[19:10:04] And obviously, Republicans mostly shrugging their shoulders. You obviously have attacked Michael Cohen as I share there part of what you said, right? You said he was -- Jesus loves him but everyone else thinks he's an idiot. How can you ignore two felonies?

KENNEDY: I don't -- I'm not ignoring felonies. I don't know where you got that one. I think the violations --

BURNETT: But what you said Jesus loves him but everyone else thinks he's an idiot, discrediting the guy who's alleging the felonies, it does sound like you are demeaning the felonies.

KENNEDY: No. I'm being honest. I think he is an idiot. I think that he's a grifter. I don't think Mr. Cohen would know the truth if it jumped up, yodelled, and bit him in the ass. I don't know why the President would ever associate himself with this guy.

BURNETT: OK, but he did for a dozen years. He relied on him for these sorts of things. And I want to ask you, because, again, it sounds to me pretty loudly and clearly what you're saying is Cohen is such an idiot that what he says can't be trusted. Prosecutors did say that he lied. We all know he is a liar, Senator, OK? But federal prosecutors describe Cohen, the information he provided on this issue, "The information he has provided has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the Special Counsel's ongoing investigation."

Credible, consistent, other evidence, who knows whether that's text messages or tapes or whatever that is. They are saying this is real. Forget what you think about Michael Cohen, right?

KENNEDY: Well, then I think Mr. Mueller ought to prosecute but I don't think he will. I don't know what other evidence he has.

BURNETT: You think he should prosecute the President?

KENNEDY: If I could just answer -- finish my answer.


KENNEDY: I don't know what other evidence Mr. Mueller has, neither do you. I'm just saying I haven't met Mr. Mueller. I think he's a smart guy and a good prosecutor. And I was asked whether I think he is going to prosecute the President on this, and I said no, I don't. I don't think -- I think he is too smart as a prosecutor to prosecute the President, if his main evidence is Mr. Cohen, and he's got to prove mens rea or intent after the John Edwards trial. That was what I answered -- how I answered your question.

BURNETT: But what I am -- I just want to make sure I understand because when you're saying his main source is Mr. Cohen. If Mr. Cohen has text messages or tapes, what they're referring to, right consistent with other evidence, that isn't taking Michael Cohen at his word. They're not doing that at all. They're saying giving, no, right? I mean, so you're saying if it happened, to ignore it?

KENNEDY: No. I didn't say that either, Erin. Maybe I'm not making myself clear. I don't know what other evidence Mr. Mueller has. Frankly, nor do you. None of us do. This is all speculation.

I'm just saying that if Mr. Cohen is a critical part of his case, and he's got to prove intent or mens rea, and in light of the Senator John Edwards case, I would be very surprised if Mr. Mueller, who's a very good prosecutor, will bring this case. Now, that will make -- that will disappoint some people and it will make some people happy, but that's my assessment of it.

BURNETT: Mitch McConnell said, our nation is at a cross roads. Will we pursue the search for truth or we dived, wave and evade the truth. I am, of course, referring to investigation into serious allegations of illegal conduct by the President of the United States. That's what he said about Bill Clinton. Would you agree that that is where we are now?

KENNEDY: Yes, yes. Absolutely. I would -- I mean, this investigation was started by the Justice Department 26 months ago. I think Mr. Mueller's been involved 19 or 20 months. The issue, the main issue, I think, for most Americans is, did President Trump illegally collude with a foreign agent in violation of American law to try to influence the election.

Now, so far, I've seen no evidence of that. But what I have seen is little bits and pieces of this and that, and none of us know. I would like to see Mr. Mueller answer that question. I would like to see him file a report and provide the information. If he's going to prosecute somebody, he needs to go ahead and do it. But reports to the American people and the American people are smart enough to figure it out for themselves.

My worry is that Mr. Mueller is going to prepare a report and then not make it public and if that happens, I'm going to raise all matter of hell, or he's not going to issue a report at all. And then we're just going to kind of be left hanging here, and I think that would be a great respect.

BURNETT: Well, that's good to hear because I think in this, you're aligned with many Democrats who worry it's going to be the -- Donald Trump's Justice Department that's going to try to hide the results of the report so I think we can all agree, we will want to see it. Thank you very much.

KENNEDY: Well, I will oppose that with the power I have for what it's worth.

[19:15:01] BURNETT: All right, Senator, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

KENNEDY: Thank you, Erin.

BURNETT: And next, the bickering among the nation's top leaders did not stop with the wall.


SCHUMER: When the President brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he's in real trouble.

PELOSI: When I --

TRUMP: I did.


BURNETT: Plus the Manafort legal team's revealing strategy. Could it be the ultimate pardon play? We're learning tonight more plus Republicans comparing the case to Trump to another politician you actually just heard Senator Kennedy mention that politician, John Edwards. He was not convicted of a crime but it's not exactly a fair comparison and we're going to show you exactly why.


BURNETT: It's a manhood thing for him, quotes. Those are the words of Nancy Pelosi about the President after that Oval Office meeting. According to an aide in the room, Pelosi told colleagues behind closed doors, "It's like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing."

Discourse in this country is at such a wonderful level, isn't it? The meeting, filled with explosive, bickering back and forth like this.


PELOSI: Fifty people of Republican Party have lost -- are losing their offices now because of the transition. People are not -- the morale is not --

TRUMP: And we've gained in the Senate. Nancy, we've gained in the Senate. Excuse me, did we win the Senate? We won the Senate.

[19:20:05] SCHUMER: When the President brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he's in real trouble.

PELOSI: When I --

TRUMP: I did. PELOSI: Let me say this.

TRUMP: We did win North Dakota and Indiana.

PELOSI: This is the most --

TRUMP: You know, Nancy's in a situation where it's not easy for her to talk right now, and I understand that. And I fully understand that. We're going to have a good discussion and we're going to see what happens.

PELOSI: Mr. President --

TRUMP: But we have to have border security.

PELOSI: Mr. President, please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats who just won a big victory.

SCHUMER: Elections have consequences, Mr. President.

PELOSI: Let me just say --

TRUMP: And that's why the country is doing so well.


BURNETT: Stephen Moore is with me now, Informal Adviser to the White House, Author of "Trumponomics," April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks, Author of "Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House", and Robert Reich, former U.S. Labor Secretary under President Clinton, Author of "The Common Good".

OK. All your books are up there. Now, let's start with the conversation here, Stephen. OK. That meeting was not -- was rather, I don't know, I guess, unpleasant, maybe not what I would hope to see. What happened behind doors was downright disgusting. But you met with the president after this meeting, his, you know, on camera meeting with Chuck and Nancy, as he calls them. How did he think it went?

STEPHEN MOORE, INFORMAL WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Well, look, you know, you accurately described that meeting as feisty. That's for sure. Donald Trump was in a very jubilant mood, actually, after that meeting. I think he likes the idea that he will now be, you know, up against Nancy Pelosi for the next two years. He thinks he will have the upper hand.

He can't understand, Erin, why it is that after two years in office, where, you know, Trump ran on building the wall to secure our border, why it is the only thing Democrats don't want to spend money on is this wall. I mean, my goodness, if we just --

BURNETT: I keep pointing to the fact that the Republican congressmen who represent the wall districts do not support the wall. I just think it's unfair to say this is a Democrat thing. There are a lot of Republicans who think the wall is the dumbest idea they've ever heard. MOORE: Well -- but don't forget they have to -- the problem -- the reason they can't get the wall built is because they can't get 50 votes in the -- they need to get 60 votes in the Senate and you even -- even if you control the Senate, they don't have enough votes. They have to get Democratic votes and the Democrats said they're against building the wall. And it seems like, why are they -- I can't even understand why they're against building the wall and enforcing the border.


BURNETT: Well, those two things are not -- OK, OK. I don't want to get into a whole wall discussion, I said the same thing with Senator Kennedy.


BURNETT: But enforcing the border and building the wall are not the same thing in a lot of people's minds, including many, many, many, mainstream Republicans. But April, I want to ask you about what Nancy Pelosi then said about the wall behind closed doors, right, this quote. It's like a manhood thing for him as if manhood would ever be associated with him. This wall thing. OK. That is a pretty nasty thing to say, let's just say that. And it's going to make Trump mad

APRIL RYAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORK: Of course it's going to make the President mad but you have to remember what happened in the Oval Office for the world to see. When he demeaned her and she said, do not characterize my strength as I am in leadership and, you know, received this new job.

This is along the lines of what the President does with women. We've seen it, I've seen it, I've felt it, and now Nancy Pelosi had it but she fought back. We saw a little bit of her Baltimore roots. I know she's San Francisco but we saw a little bit of her Baltimore roots, her political roots come back and she was fighting against President Trump with this.

And this -- and I'm going to say this to you. This -- what we saw today, we saw the trailer of the movie, checks and balances, that comes out in January. That stars Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer.

BURNETT: Let me play another exchange, Bob Reich. Here it is.


SCHUMER: One thing I think we agree on is we shouldn't shut down the government over a dispute and you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.

TRUMP: I -- no, no, no, no, no. The last time, Chuck, you shut it down --

SCHUMER: No, no, no.

TRUMP: -- and then you opened it up very quickly.

SCHUMER: Twenty times. Twenty times.

TRUMP: And I don't want to do what you did. But, Chuck --

SCHUMER: Twenty times you have called for, "I will shut down the government if I don't get my wall." None of us have said --

TRUMP: You want to know something?

SCHUMER: You've said it.

TRUMP: OK, you want to put that on my --

SCHUMER: You said it.

TRUMP: I'll take it.

SCHUMER: OK, good.

TRUMP: You know what I'll say? Yes, if we don't get what we want, one way or the other -- whether it's through you, through a military, through anything you want to call -- I will shut down the government.



BURNETT: Wow. That is just so mature, Bob Reich.

BOB REICH, FORMER U.S. LABOR SECRETARY UNDER PRES. BILL CLINTON: Well, it's not particularly mature, but it is conflict. And I think as Steve Moore put it, Donald Trump loves conflict because there is drama in conflict, because it gets the headlines, because it shoves the stories that he doesn't want to be on the headlines or on the news off the headlines and off the news.

He does -- you know, Donald Trump was probably all weekend fuming about all of the stories about can a president be indicted, a sitting president, and how close we're coming to a felon -- or felony indictment or impeachment. And so all of a sudden he's got his two stars of this reality TV show called the Donald Trump show, which we're going to be Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and they're right there, and he -- and he can get into a shouting match and he knows that that is going to dominate.

[19:25:12] I mean, that's going to be the most exciting thing that everybody's going to be talking about, as we are doing right now.

BURNETT: Well, I mean, but Steve Moore, does he -- does he think it's good? You just heard what he said there in the back and forth with Schumer. You know what I'll say, yes, if we don't get what we want, one way or the other, I will shut down the government. All right, now, I think we can all agree that's a very childish way to put it. It was a sort of a childish exchange on all parts. But is he going to live to regret those words, Steve Moore? MOORE: Well, look, I don't think -- I think the most important function of our government is to secure our border and to make sure that we have a military that ensures our national security. I think it's reassuring that we have a president who says, look, I'll go to the mat on those things. I will fight, you know, my political opponents on this to make sure that we do have enough funding for the military and we do have funding for border security.


MOORE: Now, look --

BURNETT: I interject again, just to make the point because I'm not going to let that go. Border security and a wall are not necessarily the same thing. I know your job is to try to conflate it but I just can't let it go.

MOORE: Erin, I promise, every single political rally that Donald Trump had from the day he first started running for president, he said, I'm going to build the wall. If he has a -- I think we will all have to agree.

BURNETT: Yes, and Mexico was going to pay for it.

MOORE: If Donald Trump has a mandate for anything, it's building the wall.

BURNETT: Well, April, is that what this is about, ultimately, for him? That he made the promise so many times that he just -- he's going to say this whether he's going to shut down the government or not is not the point, Chuck points out, 20 times.

RYAN: This President needs a win, and this -- if he gets this wall, this would be a win. But you got to remember, you know, the border security is not just about a wall. Really, I mean, there are many people, many critics of this wall issue who say that this is about controlling the browning of America, plain and simple.

Yes, there's issues of terrorism. Yes, there's issues of -- you have issues of drug trafficking and some criminals maybe, but at the same time, it's not just about a wall. If you really want to talk about fixing the border, deal with other issues like trafficking through those trucks. You have smuggling people over the border. There are other issues other than people just crossing the border. This 2,000- mile stretch.

Now -- and there's another issue. You have -- when you talk about securing borders, there's an issue of visas that are overstayed. There's so many components that go into the issue of securing the border and immigration. This border wall thing is about controlling the browning of America.

BURNETT: Well, it's also true that the number one way people come into this country illegally is via airports, not the southern border. But Bob Reich, again, I'm not trying to debate the whole wall here. I'm simply trying to say, politically, can the President win this? He's looking very forceful on his signature rally issue as Steve points out.

REICH: Erin, this is great for fueling and rallying his base but his base is a minority of America. Most Americans understand that Donald Trump created this wall business, he created it even this crisis of immigration, that's his invention. There are a lot of crises in the world, I mean climate change for one, but Donald Trump wants to focus on a non-crisis.

I mean, we know from -- we know from immigration authorities, we know from the border patrol that, in fact, we've seen a reduction in illegal immigration since 2012. I mean, Donald Trump created this. I was there in Washington when Newt Gingrich was responsible or felt -- the public felt he was responsible for closing down the government and the Republicans really never completely recovered from that. Certainly, Newt Gingrich didn't. It's a huge risk for Donald Trump.

BURNETT: Well, as he said, I own it. I'll take the mantle. We'll see what happens, if it actually comes to fruition. Thank you all.

And next, breaking news, President Trump just now speaking to Reuters in an interview, calling people who worked for him, who had contacts with Russians, "peanut stuff." Also saying the payments to women were not a campaign contribution. That's the felony issue. Much more ahead. These headlines literally just crossing from this interview.

And the scramble for Trump's new chief of staff. One name reportedly being floated now, Rick Santorum. Would he take the job? He's OUTFRONT.


[19:31:43] BURNETT: Breaking news, peanut stuff. President Trump just using those words in a brand-new "Reuters" interview they just actually left, they're pushing their headlines out now. He was asked about people who worked for him that had contacts with Russia. His answer was, it's peanut stuff.

Keep in mind, by our count, at least 16 Trump associates have had contact with Russians during the campaign or during the transition and he also said in this interview that payments made to women who said they had affairs with him were not campaign contributions.

Pamela Brown is OUTFRONT.

Pamela, what else is the president saying in this interview? Literally these headlines are just crossing.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'm just reading the headlines that are coming in, real-time here, Erin, and what stands out to me is a few things the president is talking about in regards to the Russia investigation. As you pointed out, he's now claiming that contacts that members of his campaigns, his associates during the campaign as well as the transition with Russians is, quote, peanut stuff. Contrast that with what the president said last year when asked if there were any communications between Russians and Trump campaign members and he says there weren't any. Now here we are, almost two years later, and we know of at least 16

Trump associates communicating with Russians, and now he's say, look, this is all peanut stuff. Here is a list of some of those Trump associates who have spoken to Russians. And obviously, the Mueller investigation still weighs heavily on the president. Still, he is trying to down play it in this interview with "Reuters".

Also, in this interview, he's talking about Michael Cohen and saying that payments to women were not a campaign contribution, talking about payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, as you know, Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, pleaded guilty to paying these women in violation of campaign finance laws, because those payments weren't reported and prosecutors argue that that influenced the outcome of the election. And on Friday, in those court documents, Erin, prosecutors said for the first time that Cohen made those payments at the direction and coordination with Trump, then candidate Trump, who was called individual 1 in those court documents.

But now the president is claiming he did not direct Michael Cohen to do so. He said those payments weren't even a campaign contribution, and he said that he was relying on his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to do his thing, basically distancing himself from his attorney. He will be sentenced tomorrow. He will be appearing before a judge tomorrow and his sentencing, where prosecutors from Southern District as well as special counsel Mueller's office will be in attendance.

So, really interesting here to see these headlines from the president during this "Reuters" interview where he is downplaying all things having to do with Russia and those charged in the investigation, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much. Pamela. As more headlines come down here, we're going to discuss them.

I want to go straight, though, to Harry Sandick, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and a former assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, Juliette Kayyem.

Harry, OK, he says it's not a campaign contribution, number one. It wasn't a campaign contribution. If it were, it's only civil. So, by the way, already putting it out there, if it were, well, it's not that big of a deal.

[19:35:01] There's no violation based on what we did. OK?

HARRY SANDICK, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Well, I mean, that's going to be for other people to decide. He can't --

BURNETT: By the way, that's him asking, OK? I'm not asking you the question in that way.

SANDICK: Right. I mean, that's not going to be for him to decide.

Look, the timing of the payment, they could have made this payment long and advanced to buy nondisclosure from the two women but the timing of it just weeks before the campaign, you even had Rudy Giuliani saying a few months ago, you know, what a shock it would have been if -- I'm paraphrasing -- what a shock it would have been if these stories had come out in mid-October just before the election. So, the timing does not seem like a mere coincidence.

And as to whether it's criminal or civil, that has to do with, in part, what the president intended when he and Cohen together made these payments. And if he knew that it was a violation of law, then it could be criminal. Otherwise, it would be civil.

But either way, as people have said in the days since the Cohen filings on Friday, this is the type of thing that could rise to the level of impeachable acts, even if it isn't a crime.

BURNETT: So let's talk about that, Juliette, because the quote here from the "Reuters" interview just crossing, when the president was asked about impeachment, quote: It's hard to impeach somebody who hasn't done anything wrong and who's created the greatest economy in the history of our country. Talk about mixing and matching topics.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY, HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT UNDER OBAMA: Right. And I mean, you don't even know what to do with that except say that he did do something wrong, obviously, and a number of prosecutors' offices are already finding that, including U.S. attorneys offices that he appointed. This is part of the sort of deflect defense that all Donald Trump has left now, so if you look at the two different pieces of where we are now, the payoff for the sex, which Trump seems to be admitting the sex occurred but that the payment wasn't for campaign purposes, and then the Russia stuff.

Donald Trump's options are closing around him so the idea that this is just peanuts is the most recent defense. It started with there was no contacts, then contacts I didn't know about, then Obama had contacts, that was a defense at one stage, and then now, it's the peanuts defense, which we'll see how strong it is.

BURNETT: Juliette, to your point, I want to interject to say during the campaign, right, and even afterwards, he said there was no -- no one on his campaign had any contacts with Russians. There was no discussions, no nothing. Now, it's, OK, I guess it was a whole lot of people but it's peanuts.

I mean, it's very clear he's moving the line on both of these issues, by the way, and they are two separate issues, collusion/conspiracy with Russia and possibly felony payments to mistresses. These are two separate issues but he's moving the goal posts on both, right?

KAYYEM: That's exactly right. I mean, because that's his only defense at this stage. Because what has happened in the there's a three to four weeks is certainly that it's no longer Democrats saying that he did this. It is now prosecutors who are saying that he did this as well as his own people saying he did this. So, while Michael Cohen is relevant, a lot of us are waiting for tonight, I guess by midnight, for the Michael Flynn motion to come down, because we'll get a sense of how much Michael Flynn spoke about some of these no contacts or peanut contacts as Donald Trump is saying.

SANDICK: Right. The next defense is going to be, we did have contacts, there were lots of contacts, but the contacts were good. You know, we can see a progression of this step by step just the way Juliette was saying and, you know, these types of defenses that he's offering, you know, I don't think anyone should necessarily take them at their word. We'll have to see what the evidence shows.

BURNETT: Right. Right, because he keeps moving the line. By the way, I should just note for any Republicans in Congress watching, the president defying you, yet again, saying he is standing by the Saudi crown prince, despite the outcry over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. So, continuing to thumb his nose at all of his allies in the Senate and Congress who have spoken out.

Thanks very much to both of you.

And next, the excuse some Republicans are using to defend Trump when it comes to those hush money mistress payments.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Edwards, obviously, was prosecuted for the same thing, and Justice Department failed.


BURNETT: And you just heard Senator Kennedy this hour make that same argument. So does it add up? We're going to explain exactly what is there for you.

Plus, Rick Santorum's name supposedly named as candidate for Trump's chief of staff. Would he take a job that other people qualified like he is are running away from?


[19:42:39] BURNETT: Breaking news, the president in an interview with "Reuters" just moments ago saying the hush money payments to two alleged mistresses were not a campaign finance violation or a crime. Trump saying, quote: Number one, it wasn't a campaign contribution. If it were, it's only civil, and even if it's only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?

Trump's allies, including Senator John Kennedy at the top of this program, have been quick to mention former Democratic senator and vice presidential nominee John Edwards when they're defending Trump on this issue, but the two cases seem to be far from the same.

Jessica Dean is OUTFRONT.


JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After the Southern District of New York implicated President Donald Trump in two federal election crimes surrounding hush money payments to two alleged former mistresses, affairs the White House denies, Trump defenders have been quick to point to one person.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at the John Edwards case.

DEAN: Rewind to 2011. Then failed Democratic presidential candidate and former Senator John Edwards was indicted on six counts related to allegations he accepted illegal campaign contributions to cover up an extramarital affair and hide his mistress from the public during the 2008 election.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I was trying to keep this mistake that I had made from becoming public.

DEAN: Prosecutors allege two wealthy donors gave Edwards over $900,000 in illegal contributions to hide his relationship with Rielle Hunter, who gave birth to his child.

EDWARDS: There's no question that I've done wrong.

DEAN: In 2012, the case went to trial. A jury acquitted Edwards on one charge and was deadlocked on the other five. The Justice Department then decided to drop the case. Some Republicans have argued the potential case against Trump would be much like the Edwards case, ending without a conviction.

SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: The question is, then, whether or not this so-called hush money is a crime. John Edwards, obviously, was prosecuted for the same thing, and Justice Department failed.

DEAN: But the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, Larry Noble, says there are major differences between the two cases.

LARRY NOBLE, FORMER FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION GENERAL COUNCIL: You have Trump's attorney, who seems to be willing to say that the purpose of these expenditures were for the campaign.

[19:45:01] DEAN: Prosecutors have Michael Cohen saying, under oath, the payments were made to affect the outcome of the election. They had no such witnesses in the Edwards trial. President Trump tweeted the payments were a, quote, simple private transaction, but Noble points to the timing of the payments as a key factor in determining intent where they made simply to keep the alleged affairs private or to influence the outcome of an election.


DEAN: Edwards' affair occurred during the election with at least one of the payments being made to Hunter after the election was over.

NOBLE: It showed that the payments were being made irrespective of the campaign. They were being made because John Edwards did not want his wife to find out about it.

DEAN: In contrast, the alleged Trump affairs happened years before. NOBLE: The critical part of this was, was it to affect the election?

Was it for the purpose of influencing the election? You know, they have said previously that, oh no, it was about his business reputation. Well, then, why didn't they pay long before he ran for office? That makes it for campaign purposes.


DEAN: And one more thing to think about when it comes to the Trump supporters out there who say look to the Edwards case for guidance here, Larry Noble told me, remember, John Edwards was indicted. Now, ultimately, he was acquitted on one charge and on the other five it was a hung jury but he was ultimately prosecuted in this case and right now, of course, no formal charges against the president. We'll wait to see what's next from prosecutors, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much. Appreciate that, Jessica.

And next, President Trump claiming he has so many options for his next chief of staff. Well, could one of them be Rick Santorum? He's OUTFRONT, next.

And your moment of Zen during today's heated oval office meeting.


[19:48:52] BURNETT: Tonight, no chief of staff for President Trump. We are reporting Trump is still working to come up with a plan B after Nick Ayers left him at the altar and the president is trying to spin the situation.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a lot of people that want the job, chief of staff, so we'll be seeing what happens over a period of a week or two or maybe less. We'll announce who it's going to be but we have a lot of people that want the position.


BURNETT: OK. So far, plenty of people have run away from the job, including the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and budget director Mick Mulvaney. Now, according to "The Washington Post," yet a new name.

Quote: Trump aides mentioned Santorum as a contender after he was spotted with the president at Saturday's Army/Navy football in Philadelphia. They noted Santorum's political skills and populist conservative ideology could make him a contender.

OUTFRONT now, Rick Santorum, former Republican senator and presidential candidate, who's also a CNN senior political commentator.

All right, let's get straight to it, Senator. Good to have you with me.


BURNETT: Did it come up at the game? Would you take the job?

SANTORUM: You know, look, it's an honor even to be considered. I think it's a great job and I know that there are a lot of good people out there.

[19:50:02] The bottom line for me is, just really like Nick Ayers, I mean, my family situation doesn't allow me to do that right now. I would again be honored to do it at some point, but at this point, it doesn't fit for me and my family. And so, you know, I guess the answer right now would be no.

BURNETT: Honored but no. I mean, look, here's the thing, Rick, I got to say. You're the one who has the expertise needed, right? You know how to deal with Congress. You know how to, you know, deal with a chief executive. You know how to manage the staff. You've done all of these things, right?

You're the kind of guy he needs to have, and yet he has said some terrible things about you, right? Downright nasty things, right? I'll play one of them, OK? It's nasty. I say that up front. Here he is.



TRUMP: Rick Santorum is a sitting senator who, in reelection, lost by 19 points. To my knowledge, the most in the history of this country for a sitting senator, to lose by 19 points. It's unheard of. Then he goes out and says, oh, OK, I just lost by the biggest margin in history, now, I'm going to run for president. Tell me, how does that work?


BURNETT: And he was nastier on Twitter, again and again, right? You're not a team player, you're desperate. You have as much chance of being GOP nominee as Rosie O'Donnell, which God knows what he thinks about her. I mean, my question to you is, Rick, you're sitting here, you're being so gracious and classy, you know, I --

SANTORUM: It's funny you played that clip.

BURNETT: He's not been that way to you.

SANTORUM: Hold on. You play that clip. I actually called him after I saw that clip. I reviewed it with him. We had a very lengthy conversation, and in the end, he said, you know what, I understand what you're doing, it makes sense to me, and, you know, I'm not gong to -- I won't use that line of attack ever again. And he never did.

So, you know, a lot of it is you have to be up-front with people. You can't just let these things go. Trump doesn't. He fires back. I fire back in a different way. I just call the person up and say let me give you my side of the

story. I can say, he was very gracious. After that point, we had a very positive relationship, and it continues today. I have a very good relationship with Donald Trump.

When I saw him at the Army/Navy game, he was great. I had two of my boys with me. He couldn't have nicer with them.

That's a side of Trump I don't think people see very often. He's confrontational, but you can sit down and reason with him, and find accommodation. That's one of the reasons I think hopefully someone really strong and has the political talent will take this job as chief of staff, and I think you would be surprised if the chemistry works well, it might be a very good fit and got for the country.

BURNETT: But you're saying that person is not going to be you. Who do you think would be good that would take the job?

SANTORUM: I'm not going to throw out names. Nobody has called and told me they're interested. I don't want to put up names for the media to say here's another person that doesn't want the job, because I don't know if they want the job or not. So, all I know is, it's a great position, something that is a very important position in every administration, and I hope someone who -- where it's right for them and their family and their time to do it and I hope they step up.

BURNETT: Why aren't people jumping at it then? Why aren't people jumping at it? Nobody --

SANTORUM: I don't know we know whether they are or not. I mean, I don't know.

BURNETT: If we were, we would be hearing your more family. I'm not saying these are excuses. I know your deep commitment to your family, but I am saying nobody is stepping up and saying, c'mon, let it be me.

SANTORUM: I think from what you've heard -- I haven't tacked to anybody in the race, but I've heard several people are lobbying hard for the position. So, I don't think that's accurate to suggest that there's nobody who wants this. I think there are lots of folks who they think could do a good job and the president has to find the right fit.

BURNETT: Do you have any idea who those people are lobbying hard. Are they with the depth of qualifications and abilities that someone like you would bring to it?

SANTORUM: Yes. The people I've heard are very solid and would be good choices.

BURNETT: All right. Well, let's hope that one of them will take it, because this country needs a good person in that spot.

SANTORUM: I hope so.

BURNETT: Thank you very much, Rick Santorum. And next, Jeanne Moos on why Vice President Pence is being compared to

the elf on the shelf.


BURNETT: Tonight, Vice President Mike Pence in that special meeting. Here's Jeanne.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It wasn't just what they said, it was how they looked saying it.

SCHUMER: I will shut down the government if I don't get my wall. None of us have said --

TRUMP: You want to know something? I'll take it.

SCHUMER: OK, good.

MOOS: Anchors were agog.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That was special.

MOOS: Watch the president for a special face at the mention of Pinocchios.

SCHUMER: "The Washington Post" today gave you a whole lot of Pinocchios because they say you constantly misstate.

MOOS: But the guy the president glanced towards suffered the wrath of Twitter merely for keeping his mouth shut. Mike Pence looks exactly like our elf on the shelf during this discussion. Someone even emptied his chair and moved him to the mantel.

Vice President Pence seemed, hmm, pensive.

And when he got that faraway look, the music mixes flowed --


MOOS: Parody as if zenning out.

Saddled with "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

TRUMP: Because I'm not going to get the vote of the Senate.

MOOS: Honorable mention to Pence for willing himself to blend in with the furniture. At times, his head swiveled as if he was watching tennis, but when he blinked, he got taunted with Pence is powered down to save electricity. People put thoughts in his head about being president, this rug is the

first thing I'm getting rid of, wishing perhaps he were anywhere but here.

Senator Schumer wore the hint of the smile, but the guy who seemed uncharacteristically happy as the meeting broke up was White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. After all, in a few weeks he's out of there.

Before the presses ushered out, we go live to Mike Pence. When you're at a smackdown, it pays to ware armor.

TRUMP: And I am proud -- and I'll tell you what? I am proud to shut down the government.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BURNETT: Was that an armadillo? Or one of those things that begins with a "P" that I've been learning with my kids, trying to figure it out.

Anyway, thanks for joining us. Don't forget, you can watch us anytime anywhere on CNNgo.

"AC360" starts now.