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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

AMI Reaches Plea Deal With Federal Prosecutors; British Lawmakers Decide Theresa May's Fate; Trump Fixer Michael Cohen Sentenced to Three Years in Prison; Source: Trump "Seething" About Cohen, Says "He's a Liar". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:20]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: These dirty deeds were not done dirt cheap.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news. President Trump's former fixer is headed to federal prison after taking full responsibility for crimes, a couple of which involve the president of the United States, allegedly. What this day in court revealed about the trouble President Trump could be facing.

Also breaking today, moments after Cohen's sentencing, it was announced another gatekeeper for Trump's secrets got immunity. What might the parent company of "The National Enquirer" reveal about payments to a Playmate?

Plus, political chaos and a leadership crisis, and, for once, I'm not talking about Washington, D.C. Any moment, results of a critical vote. Will America's most special ally have a new leader?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead, and the president's former personal attorney and fixer headed to prison.

Michael Cohen today sentenced to three years, the longest sentence so far for anyone involved in the special counsel's Russia investigation, though the bulk of this sentence is for crimes he was being prosecuted for by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, crimes that include those that, according to federal prosecutors, were committed -- quote -- "in coordination with and at the direction of" Donald Trump.

The prosecutor for the special counsel today revealed that Cohen provided credible, valuable information about the -- quote -- "core Russia-related issues under investigation."

Cohen today assuring he would continue to cooperate with the special counsel. The president's former fixer also telling the judge today he takes full responsibility for his crimes, explaining that he felt it was his duty to -- quote -- "cover up" Trump's dirty deeds, those dirty deeds, including, of course, the hush money payments to adult film star and director Stormy Daniels and 1998 "Playboy" magazine Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal.

And just minutes ago, another piece of the puzzle. Prosecutors from the Southern District announcing they reached a non-prosecution agreement with American Media, Inc. -- that's the parent company of the tabloid "The National Enquirer" -- in connection with the hush money payment to Karen McDougal.

And as part of this agreement, AMI admitted the payment was made in concert with the Trump campaign and that the primary purpose was to prevent McDougal's story from -- quote -- "influencing the election."

Let's get right to CNN's M.J. Lee, who is outside the courthouse where Michael Cohen was sentenced this afternoon.

And, M.J., it seemed a very emotional day there for Cohen and his family.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: A very emotional day, Jake.

And, obviously, this was not the outcome that Michael Cohen was hoping for. He was actually hoping to get no jail time. His lawyers, as you know, had been making the case that because he had cooperated so extensively with investigators, he should get a lot of leniency, and they also made a personal case that he and his family have already suffered a lot.

Now, one of the most stunning moments from today was Cohen describing in his own words to the judge how he himself was a victim and also restating that he was simply doing the president's bidding.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEE (voice-over): Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in prison in a dramatic day of reckoning for Donald Trump's former attorney and fixer.

With his family watching in the courtroom, an emotional Cohen saying he takes full responsibility, but also pointing the finger at the president, saying: "Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds."

Cohen pleaded guilty in August to eight criminal counts and last month to lying to Congress. In a final plea to Judge William Pauley, Cohen describing his life as -- quote -- "personal and mental incarceration" since he started working for Trump.

All of this a stark reversal from Cohen's years of praise.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I care about Mr. Trump.

He's a man of great intellect, great intuition and great ability.

He will ultimately go down in history as the greatest president.

LEE: The judge delivering harsh words to Cohen, saying he thrived on his access to wealth and powerful people, and he became one himself.

The president turned on his former lawyer earlier this year, as Cohen began cooperating with investigators.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What he's trying to do is end -- and it's very simple. He's got himself a big prison sentence. And he's trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story.

LEE: At the center of Cohen's unraveling, two women and two infamous hush payments, former Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels. Both allege they had affairs with Trump, which he denies.

[16:05:00]

Federal prosecutors now confirm Cohen facilitated those secret payments at Trump's direction, something Trump initially denied knowing anything about and now downplays.

And the special counsel's office saying in court today that Cohen continues to cooperate to this day with their investigation. Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee saying Cohen has -- quote -- "told the truth."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEE: Now, Cohen is going to have quite a bit of time to mull over everything that happened before he heads to prison. In addition to the $1 million that the judge has ordered in restitution, he has ordered Michael Cohen to report to prison on March 6 -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, M.J., thank you so much.

And, M.J., we just learned, I should note, that another party involved in these hush money payments, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," AMI, is admitting that the transaction was about the election and influencing the election.

What's the significance of that?

LEE: That's right.

This is a very big headline involving the media company that made that payment to Karen McDougal. The SDNY saying today that it will not prosecute AMI in exchange for cooperation from the media company, in addition to an admission.

And let me just read a key line describing that admission. SDNY says; "AMI admitted it made the $150,000 payment in concert with the candidate's presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election."

Now, Jake, why is this potentially bad news for Trump and his legal team? Well, they have been making the case, as you know, that they have been pointing to the John Edwards case. He, of course, ran for president back in 2008. And he had paid his mistress at the time who was pregnant to keep her quiet.

Well, Edwards, as you know, was acquitted. And this was a sign and a lot of legal experts to this day will say this goes to show how hard it was for prosecutors to show at the time that this payment was politically motivated, as opposed to just being motivated by wanting to conceal this affair from his family.

So AMI stating today that, when it comes to Donald Trump, that there is no ambiguity. This payment was 100 percent politically motivated -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, M.J. Lee, thanks so much.

And let's take a moment here with my panel. The president's attorney is going to jail, jail, for crimes that the prosecutors say, two of them at least, the president told him to do. I know that we have all kind of gotten numb to all of the daily chaos of this administration. But this is huge.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's huge. And it's stunning.

And let's remember who Michael Cohen is, right, or was, the president's attorney, fixer, spokesperson, a handler, almost like a member of the family, the first person you almost deal with.

I covered Donald Trump's sort of pretend run in 2011. The first person you deal with is Michael Cohen. He's the go-between. He's the aide you're always talking to when you're covering Donald Trump. And so to see him brought low today, this man who was full of swagger and confidence and braggadocios all of the time because of his affiliation with Donald Trump, to see him brought low because of that affiliation with Donald Trump, a really stunning, stunning day.

TAPPER: And, Laura, just want -- a former acting solicitor general for Obama, Neal Katyal, tweeted about Cohen.

"Sentence is bad news for Trump. In most jurisdictions, subordinates who carry out felonies at the direction of their boss get lower criminal sentences than the boss."

What do you make of that?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, here you have this idea of, who was telling who? Who was actually pulling the strings?

You have Michael Cohen essentially saying that he was but a marionette and a puppet of president of the United States, and he was the true victim here. He even talked about, I won't be remembered as the villain in this whole thing.

Well, he is acknowledging the fact he is saying the blame actually goes someplace else and I was told to do this, and the reason I'm weak is not why the president says. I'm weak because I thought I actually was compelled to do so.

He is alerting the court and trying to say, look, don't blame me. And please treat this person more harshly.

Now, there is a difference between Michael Cohen and, of course, President Donald Trump, and the word president is the difference here.

TAPPER: Right.

COATES: And who you can actually indict and who you cannot. There was never an issue about indicting someone like Michael Cohen. But the president, we got that OLC memo that says, listen, we don't want to do this. It's really a burden on executive branch of government.

But having said that, it also plays into Donald Trump saying the opposite. He's saying, look, I was directed by my attorney, Michael Cohen, who I am now playing as a coffee boy, to actually do this campaign finance violation. So which one is it?

TAPPER: And, Scott, there's a mystery in these documents. It says, AMI made a payment in the amount of $150,000, in cooperation, consultation and concert and at the request and suggestion of one or more members or agents of a candidate's 2016 presidential campaign.

One or more.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. And is one or more the president, the campaign manager, other people? Did the president not involve himself in those conversations? We don't know that. That's a critical piece here.

[16:10:05]

I mean, look, the reality is, it was dumb to pay these women in the first place. It wouldn't have changed a thing in October.

People already knew who Donald Trump was when they made these payments. And it was dumb to lie about it. And it has gotten him into a huge mess here. Clearly, they want to indict the president of the United States.

What I'm wondering about, at the White House right now is, do you have in cases of emergency, you just got indicted, break glass, plan? Because it is clear these prosecutors want to go down this road and will if permitted to do so by their bosses.

TAPPER: Symone?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Let me just say, today, we learned a couple of things.

The president is a crook. His attorney is a crook. His former campaign manager, one of them, was a crook. So it is jarring to me, jarring to me that -- I want folks to understand, if Donald Trump is not the president of the United States, he would have probably been in court today being sentenced.

But the presidency is currently protecting him. But the presidency is also the thing that is going to be Donald Trump's downfall. He had been doing and engaging in this type of behavior for a very long time. And the only reason this has come to a head for the American people is because he decided to run for president and there was some foul stuff with Russia along the way.

I have always said, where there is smoke, there is fire. And this has been a very smoky situation.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Go ahead.

COATES: You know, in addition to that, the idea that Mueller originally had the Cohen case and then farmed it out to the SDNY, but for the actions taken by President Trump to then lead to the hiring of a special counsel, it is likely that given what Symone is saying, the breadth and scope and length of all of these sorts of dealings that happened, including personal financial issues, issues about tax evasion, and campaign finance, maybe none of this would have been investigated or come to light.

That is also equally jarring, the idea that this witch-hunt campaign that is being spoken about has led to people who have pointy hats, ride on broomsticks and have green paint on their faces.

TAPPER: And Scott raises a really interesting point, which was, in October of 2016, we were all discussing the "Access Hollywood" tape which was the president basically bragging about, and maybe you don't believe he meant it, but bragging about sexual assault.

And these are two consensual relationships with women.

JENNINGS: Had been 10 years.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: So why go to all this expense?

HENDERSON: For whatever reason, Donald Trump thought this was a bridge too far. Maybe it was because it was a Playmate model. Maybe because it was a porn star. Maybe because he was also obviously trying to keep the white evangelicals behind him.

But Donald Trump, who we all say knows the electorate and knows his base very well, thought that this would be too much for his base. And when you think about an election that was won by 10,000 votes here, 10,000 votes here and a couple of states in the Midwest, it may have made something of a difference.

JENNINGS: He may have been trying to keep it from those people. Or he may have been trying to keep it from one voter, his wife.

TAPPER: Maybe.

SANDERS: Oh, please.

(CROSSTALK) JENNINGS: And that could be a defense.

(CROSSTALK)

JENNINGS: That's my point, is he's not without defenses.

"The National Enquirer" news complicates the defenses, depending on who they spoke to. But he's not without defenses, as John Edwards was not without defenses. The trouble is, in order to deploy those defenses, you have got to be indicted and go to court and fight it out.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Donald Trump broke -- to be clear, before he even paid the money and covered it up, he did cheat on his wife right after she had had his baby.

JENNINGS: Yes.

SANDERS: And so to think that...

JENNINGS: Clearly.

SANDERS: He clearly didn't care because he was in the room doing it in the first place.

I find it hard to believe that he's trying to protect Melania. At the end of the day...

JENNINGS: No, he's trying to protect himself from Melania.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I do want to take 10 seconds just to read Michael Cohen's tweet from 2015 that he has since deleted.

"Hillary Clinton, when you go to prison for defrauding America and perjury, your room and board will be free."

Wow, that did not age well.

Coming up, President Trump's defense has gone from public denial to the brush-off. How will he respond to Michael Cohen's sentence?

Then, shouting, yelling, political threats, forget the swamp. We're talking about what's happening across the pond.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:17:59] TAPPER: We have some breaking news in our politics lead. President Trump so far has avoided any public reaction to his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, in court today, being sentenced to jail. But behind the scenes, a source tells CNN, he had quite a bit to say about Cohen alleging that he covered up for the president's, quote, dirty deeds.

Let me bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, what are you hearing about how the president is feeling about his former lawyer going to prison for three years?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the president has had so much to say about Michael Cohen over the years. For the long time, it was always positive, of course. In recent months, it has been very negative.

Today, intentionally silent in public talking about this. But I asked one official to sum up his reaction. He used three words. He's a liar.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump was in no mood to talk today about the sentencing of his long-time fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen.

REPORTER: Mr. President, any comment about Cohen sentencing?

ZELENY: But Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, finally took aim at his old boss, apologizing for what he called blind loyalty. While the president has been increasingly dismissive of Cohen --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So he's lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence, OK?

ZELENY: He and the White House were unusually silent as Cohen implicated the president in a scheme to silence women who said they had affairs with Trump. Cohen accepted responsibility even as he blamed the president.

I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds, he told the judge.

The president still insists the blame rests on Cohen's shoulders, telling "Reuters", Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I assume he would know what he's doing.

The president also offering a new defense for the hush money payment saying, it wasn't a campaign contribution. If it were, it's only civil. And even if it's only civil, there is no violation based on what we did, OK?

But he doesn't have the final say on that. Today's proceedings in a New York courtroom represented an extraordinary turn-about for Cohen, a member of Trump's inner circle for more than a decade, his protector in business and politics. Trump first denied knowing about payments Cohen made to women to buy their silence during the campaign.

[16:20:01] REPORTER: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No, no. What else?

REPORTER: Then why -- why did Michael Cohen make his fir there was no truth to her allegation?

TRUMP: Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my -- an attorney, and you'll have to ask Michael Cohen.

ZELENY: He later acknowledged repaying Cohen. But eight months ago, he erupted when authorities raided Cohen's home and office.

TRUMP: So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, good man. And it's a disgraceful situation.

ZELENY: When Cohen started cooperating with prosecutors, Trump changed his tune and turned on him.

TRUMP: He's a weak person, and not a very smart person. What he's trying to do is end -- and it's very simple. He's got himself a big prison sentence. And he's trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story.

ZELENY: Yet Cohen may have the last word, telling the judge: I will continue to cooperate with the government.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And, Jake, those words there, I will continue to cooperate with the government, certainly are unsettling to some here at the White House and indeed around Washington -- a sign that Michael Cohen is not yet finished potentially having his say in this and offering information to the special counsel or other prosecutors.

But as for the president, Jake, it was by design for him not to answer questions today. Of course, officials here do not believe his silence will last very long on this at all. But a White House official did point to a tweet the president sent last week. Again, he said, he's a liar and he should serve his full sentence.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Let's talk more about this with the panel.

So, Symone, Cohen said specifically in court that he was trying to cover up for the president's, quote, dirty deeds. Are you surprised that the president hasn't said anything publicly? I mean, this has been hours.

SANDERS: No, I'm not surprised. I think Donald Trump is actually baffled, dumbfounded, angry, because I'm pretty sure he thought that he had Michael Cohen in his pocket. He thought that there is nothing -- UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What?

TAPPER: Still?

SANDERS: Look -- well, no. I mean, this is the 11th hour. I think he's known for a few months now that the cat was out of the bag, so to say.

But I do think that he thought he had Michael Cohen in his pocket early on. That, you know, there was nothing that Michael Cohen would not do for him, and he had him so close. And he got duped. Now, the fact of the matter is, the president has other business that he has to attend to as president of the United States. There was a whole debacle that happened in the oral -- in the Oval Office the other day. And the government is still potentially heading towards a shutdown.

TAPPER: So, Laura, President Trump told "Reuters", quote, Michael Cohen should have known what he was doing. I hope he did. My lawyers say, frankly, that everything he did was fine. Everything he did was fine. He's about to go to prison for three years.

COATES: I thought Cohen was one of his lawyers. So which one is he talking about?

TAPPER: I guess the president meets his current lawyers, Rudy, et cetera, say that everything Michael Cohen did was fine. So -- but I mean, there is, you know, this nagging fact, this uncomfortable fact that Cohen pleaded guilty and is going to prison.

COATES: Of course, to multiple felonies. And, of course, he also implicated the president of the United States and won. The difference here -- let's look at those two different pleas, though. Look at the one that involved the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the one that involved SDNY. You have the difference between what a yes man is and what a people pleaser is.

On the first plea of guilt was he directed me to do something. He told me to do it. The second plea is, I thought that I was expected to do this. And so in the second one, you're the people-pleaser. And I can't were the people pleasers quite as easily as I can a yes men who takes direction. And so, you have the same thing, the same theme always going through.

Did the president orchestrate it? According to Cohen, he did. Is there somebody there who could give proof that this president actually did it? And, of course, you have David Pecker, the head of AMI, who got immunity a couple of months ago around the same time that Michael Cohen did his guilty plea. And if that person was able to provide information that said, I was in the room when he was directed to actually orchestrate or facilitate a payment of $150,000 to Karen McDougal and other people in catch and kill, well then now you have something that looks like an actual yes man, not a people pleaser.

TAPPER: So, Scott, Jeannie Rhee who is with the special counsel's office, she testified in court. Michael Cohen, quote, has provided our office with credible and reliable information about core Russia- related issues under investigation and within the purview of the special counsel's office. I think potentially that's the most significant thing that was said in court today.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Agree. And I think if I were the Democrats who now have this power in Congress, I would keep my powder dry. I saw Nadler on television this weekend, talking about impeachment, I saw Schiff talking about jail time, all over this campaign finance issue. If I were them, I think I would look at this and say, the American people might consider that an overreach over a decade old couple of relationships.

I would wait for that.

[16:25:00] I would be patient and wait for that, because it strikes me, if you're going to go after the guy, I would -- I would think the American people would think the Russia stuff is more important than a decade-old --

TAPPER: It was the crime that was committed in 2016, not the relationship --

JENNINGS: I know, but what -- we've been through this.

TAPPER: I know -- just to be clear. That's what --

SANDERS: And they impeached the president.

JENNINGS: And what -- the American people wouldn't stand for it.

HENDERSON: And it seems like the Democrats, you know, know what Scott is talking about. I mean, you listen to what Nadler said, he basically said these could be impeachable offenses, but he's not sure they rise to the level of impeachment. They are going to have a lot of power come January, and they have talked about any number of things. His tax returns, his financial dealings, Russia, Saudi Arabia. So there is going to be a buffet of issues that Democrats are going to look at, including and probably most prominently, the Russia probe.

COATES: By the way, I was going to say, the idea that who has leverage, Mueller and SDNY continue to have leverage, even after the judge said, you're sentenced to three years. They have until March to report to prison, which means that if you thought that you did the maximum by being a confirmer of details, not a cooperator, you've got about 100 days to correct that idea and maybe give information that's perhaps more important and useful to them to try to reduce that sentence between now and then.

TAPPER: And, Symone, on the possibility of impeachment, President Trump told "Reuters", quote, it's hard to impeach somebody who hasn't done anything wrong and who has created the greatest economy in the history of our country. He added, I'm not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened.

SANDERS: So, to be clear, the economy is doing quite well in some respects. GDP is up, but wages are flat and stagnant in some places. But the current economy -- I think economists would even argue, it does not rival the economy we saw in the early '90s.

That being said, Donald Trump is grasping for straws here. Democrats in Congress know they were elected to put a check on this president and to get something done for the American people. Folks are not running to the hills, screaming impeachment. The Republicans are the ones doing that.

And frankly, I said this before, Democrats always fall prey to having the conversation that the Republicans define as instead of defining the conversation for themselves. So, I think that we will see -- look, will the people revolt? I don't know, Jake. But where there is smoke, there is fire and the president has done wrong. If he was not president of the United States today, he would be hauled off to jail. And I think that's something folks shouldn't forget.

TAPPER: Speaking of revolting, the verb, not the adjective, it is possible that Democratic grassroots progressive activists are going to demand the Democratic presidential candidates call for impeachment. That's going to be a gravitational force.

HENDERSON: I think that's right. And we're going to have, you know, 30 or so folks vying for the Democratic nomination. And that's going to start happening soon. People are going to start announcing their candidacy.

SANDERS: Julian Castro today.

HENDERSON: Exploratory committee. So come January, we'll see who gets out of the sort top tier candidates, who gets out there first. But this is going to be I think a sort of litmus test for these folks, who is calling for impeachment.

JENNINGS: And at least one is hanging their hat on it. Tom Steyer has spent millions of dollars on an impeachment campaign. I think they have collected over 6 million signatures.

Now, my guess is, the 6 million people who sign that petition are highly likely to be Democratic presidential primary voters. Do you think he's going to back off his cause for impeachment as this primary wears on? Of course not.

So, there is going to be pressure. And the question is, is what the Democratic primary voters want line up with what the American people think is fair?

SANDERS: Democratic primary will not just be about impeachment. There will be a number of issues.

TAPPER: No, maybe a lot. It will be a force, though.

Everyone, stick around.

Coming up, breaking news on a leadership challenge involving one of America's closest allies. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)