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Trump's Ex-Lawyer Cohen Sentenced to Three Years in Prison; Cohen Attorney, Petrillo, Compares Russia Probe to Watergate; House Passes Rule Gutting a Bill that Pulls Back Support for Saudi-Led War in Yemen; Deal Reached on Legislation on How Congress Handles Internal Sexual Harassment Complaints; Protests Break Out in Michigan over Outgoing Republican Power Grab. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired December 12, 2018 - 14:30   ET

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


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[14:32:07] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to take some time just to put some perspective on our breaking news. The lawyer who fixed things for President Trump for years and years, Michael Cohen, has been sentenced this morning to three years in prison and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution after pleading guilty to nine counts for felonies he committed while working for Donald Trump.

The sentencing happened off camera with Michael Cohen going after Trump and saying this: "Recently, the president tweeted a statement calling me weak, and it was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because, time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds."

Cohen's sentence the most severe thus far for anyone caught up in the president's orbit who has been caught up in the Russia meddling investigation.

Let's go to Chris Cillizza, our CNN politics reporter, editor-at- large.

When we talk about the Trump orbit, not just Michael Cohen, give me some perspective on who has been charged, convicted, jailed?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER AND CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Let me remind you, Brooke, that all of this will run counter to Donald Trump's attempts to cast this as a witch hunt or hoax.

Let's go through it. Michael Cohen over here, three years in jail for what he pleaded guilty to. That's our news.

Remember, George Papadopoulos, who started this whole thing by bragging, out for drinks with an Australian diplomat, by bragging the Russian himself dirt on Hillary Clinton way back when, he's already served his jail time.

Manafort is going to be sentenced. This may wind up being the longest sentence.

Michael Flynn and Rick Gates, deputy campaign manager advisor and former national security adviser, both of these guys are still awaiting their fates as it relates to any prison time. Though I will note that Bob Mueller's office, special counsel office, has recommended Flynn not serve any time.

But this is not what a hoax or a partisan witch hunt looks like. One, two and almost certainly three of these people will be spending time in jail. That is nothing -- there's nothing fake about that -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: All right. So that's on one list.

I know you have another list of people who Mueller is looking into. I see many more faces.

CILLIZZA: Look, I don't think we can show this list enough because it speaks to just how many people in Donald Trump's close orbit were in some kind of contact with Russians. Some more in depth, some less in depth. Don Jr, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, these people all related to Donald Trump, eldest son, eldest daughter, son-in-law. These two people work in the White House. Cohen was his closest adviser for a decade, guy he relied on, fixed his problems.

Manafort was the campaign manager. Rick Gates was the deputy campaign manager. Jeff Sessions, former attorney general, Michael Flynn, national security adviser. Time and time again you go through this and think -- and you and I have talked about this before -- this all adds up to -- think of this as smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke. There's not a fire on here as it relates to Donald Trump yet, right? My gosh, the smoke is so thick at this point, it's hard to see in front of you.

I think that's something that Donald Trump, in maybe his more honest moments, is coming into realization of. This is a lot of contacts for a presidential to have with a foreign entity, that we know because the Intelligence Community told us, was actively interfering in an election to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.

[14:35:33] BALDWIN: That's all the smoke.

Chris Cillizza, thank you.

CILLIZZA: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Let's go back to the fire. Let's go back to Michael Cohen. His attorney, in court, compared the Russia probe to Watergate.

Let's delve into that as someone who will know. Richard Ben-Veniste was a former assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York where prosecutors just prosecuted Cohen. He became chief of the Anti-Corruption Section there before leaving to become a Watergate special prosecutor, and he's now a CNN legal analyst.

Richard, welcome back to you, sir.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We wanted to talk to you because, first and foremost, Cohen's lawyers were comparing their whole situation to Watergate, seeing Michael Cohen as John Dean. Do you think that Michael Cohen is John Dean?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, John Dean went to jail, remember, and he pleaded guilty, and that was a condition of his being a cooperator in Watergate. So notwithstanding everything that John Dean had to offer by way of cooperation, he also pleaded to a felony and did jail time. So what we're looking at with Cohen, I think, is rule 35 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, which allows for a convicted and sentenced defendant to make a motion for reduction of sentence based on --

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BALDWIN: If he continues to cooperation.

BEN-VENISTE: -- substantial cooperation with the government. So that's still open to Cohen.

In the southern district, you can't go halfway. You can say you're going to cooperate fully and not do it, and he did not. There are all kinds of things. He's got a lifetime in his professional life full of stuff, tax evasion, a variety of different scams, unfortunately, that have come home to roost, and were uncovered by the southern district's search warrant of his office, hotel and so forth. And so that information did him in.

Then came the very significant cooperation that he has offered to Special Counsel Mueller. And that will continue, in my opinion. And he will have the opportunity to get another bite at the apple, as it were, on his sentencing.

BALDWIN: But so --

BEN-VENISTE: So today is a reflection of the ethos of the southern district. If you're going to cooperate, cooperate 100 percent. You can't do it halfway.

BALDWIN: There's no kind of sort of cooperating with the SDNY, as we've all learned. So he will continue cooperating, at least we know that for sure with regard to the Trump Organization. We'll wait to see if rule 35 comes into effect.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Let me ask you about this.

BEN-VENISTE: Yes.

BALDWIN: Can I ask about, Cohen's lawyers went after Trump. And so the question is, how will Trump respond, right? So last week, we know Trump had said, throw the book at him. And then in this interview with Reuters last night, Trump said, quoting, "Number one, it wasn't a campaign contribution. If it were, it's only civil. And if it were only civil" -- Richard, here comes the key part -- "there was no violation based on what we did." We did. BEN-VENISTE: Yes. So every time the president opens his mouth to

opine on some aspect of the investigation, he only digs himself deeper into a hole. And this is -- why should this be any exception to the Trump rule of making everything worse possible?

So what I look for in the next phase of the Mueller investigation is the financial piece of this. And I think there's information not only that Mr. Trump will hear from Cohen, but also from the Trump Organization and the individuals who are cooperating with the special counsel from the Trump Organization. And the question in my mind is whether there's information that suggests that the Russians directly or indirectly have provided assistance over the years to Mr. Trump, that then can be used to compromise Mr. Trump, and may explain some of the very unusual behaviors that we have observed toward Russia.

[14:40:11] BALDWIN: If you're Trump's lawyers, have you pulled all your hair out by now?

BEN-VENISTE: If you had any to start with, you probably did.

BALDWIN: Richard Ben-Veniste, I kid, I kid sort of.

Richard Ben-Veniste, good to see you, sir. Thank you very much.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BALDWIN: As we continue to follow that investigation, protests are erupting in Michigan as Republicans move to weaken the power of the incoming Democrats. We will take you there live.

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[14:45:02] BALDWIN: Just in to us here at CNN, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a new rule regarding Saudi Arabia amid the fallout over the murder of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is live on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what just happened?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The House move to gut a resolution moving through the chamber that would pull back U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. What the Republicans in the House did in their final days is they added language to an unrelated measure that essentially would prevent this bill to pull back U.S. support for the war in Yemen. They would not allow the change. Essentially makes it easier for the House Republican leaders to deny that from coming up to the floor as a vote. This comes as, of course, the White House has fought furiously to try

to deny, try to reject that bill at all costs as they've aligned themselves with Saudi Arabia and with that war effort in Yemen.

This comes the same date that the Senate is moving on a similar plan to pull back U.S. support from Yemen. It was expected to hit the floor in the next hour or so, but because of the House's efforts, there's virtually no chance this is going to land on the president's desk before the end of the year, essentially, confronting him on this issue.

Brooke, this is all part of a larger effort in Congress to try to figure out how to respond to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the American-based journalist, who, of course, was killed in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But some Republicans don't want to go the way that some Democrats and some other Republicans want to go, which is to try to pull back from the Saudi war in Yemen. They're looking at other measures, including placing the blame directly on the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for his role allegedly in that murder.

But this one effort here involving with trying to cut U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen appears to essentially fall by the wayside because Republican leaders are opposed to it. And they inserted that measure into an unrelated provision, rule, denying that from going forward. Right now, they're at a stalemate in the House. The Senate trying to move forward on its own plan. We'll see what happens later today -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: Got it.

Manu, thank you on that.

Also up on Capitol Hill just now, CNN has learned a deal has finally been reached over this long-stalled legislation regarding how Congress handles internal sexual harassment complaints. Remember we talked about this a number of months ago?

CNN Congressional Correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is live with me here on this update.

Have they done it? What's in this compromise bill?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brooke, a deal has been struck. This is a significant step forward to Congress getting its own house in order in the way it handles sexual harassment complaints and who foots the bill, when and if settlements are paid out.

House and Senate negotiators have been working on one bill that can pass in both chambers to reform the process up here on Capitol Hill. And they have indeed reached that conclusion. They've reached an agreement. And the feeling is a bill could pass by the end of the year. Now, importantly here, it for the first time if passed and, indeed, it likely will, it will hold lawmakers, members of Congress personally responsible that they would foot the bill if they are held responsible for any settlement for sexual harassment and harassment in general. That has never been done before.

We talked late last year in the wake of the "Me Too" movement, this revelation that lawmakers were dipping into this slush fund, essentially using taxpayer money to pay out the sexual harassment settlements. That when this bill passes will no longer happen. The lawmakers, if responsible, will have to pay that themselves. A lot still needs to be done. The agreement is made in principle. We're still waiting on the bill texting, of course. It has to pass. All negotiators tell me they're confident they'll be able to pass it before the end of the year. A new day on Capitol Hill a year in the making after the "Me Too" movement hit on Capitol Hill -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: Slush fund no more.

Sunlen, keep us posted on that.

Sunlen Serfaty, thank you very much.

Protests have erupted in Michigan -- look at these pictures -- as Republicans move to weaken the power of incoming Democrats. We will take you in the thick of it live.

[14:49:43] And just as the president's long-time lawyer has been sentenced to prison, the parent company of the "National Enquirer" has reached a deal over a hush money payment involving Michael Cohen and the president. Big development there. We'll discuss.

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BALDWIN: Angry Michigan voters are converging on the state capitol protesting what they call a Republican lame-duck power grab.

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(CHANTING)

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BALDWIN: Here's what these protesters want. They're accusing Republican lawmakers pushing through this 11th-hour legislation before the new Democratic leadership takes control in January. Last month, voters elected Democrats to the offices of governor, attorney general and secretary of state, who happen to be women. Several bills have been passed. And today, Governor Rick Snyder just signed a controversial pipeline bill opposed by his successor.

The governor signaling he is not worried at all about how this looks politically.

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[14:55:08] RICK SNYDER (R), OUT-GOING MICHIGAN GOVERNOR: My role is to see what comes to me and work on better projects for Michigan. This is my fourth lame duck, every two years. Each time, there are a burst of bills. What I would say is it's hard to make a generalized statement to say all this good or all is bad. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Miguel Marquez is there, our CNN national correspondent, in Lansing.

What are these protesters telling you?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are extraordinarily unhappy with the amount of legislation, not only changing voter initiatives that were approved by the Michigan votes, but also passing new legislation they say will tie the hands of those incoming Democratic officials.

They took over the capitol here. They were outside. This is the House chamber in the Michigan capitol where lawmakers and lobbyists often meet.

It's the exact place that protesters wanted their voice heard. One is this Niera Sharif.

Did I say that right?

Niera Sharif. I knew I would mess that up.

You came in from Flint. Why so important to come here today and have your voice heard?

NIERA SHARIF, FLINT, MICHIGAN RESIDENT: Well, this power grab is like reminiscent for me of 2012 where they replaced the emergency management law after voters voted the law down in early November. If we did not have a replacement emergency management there, we wouldn't have had the water crisis.

MARQUEZ: There's a whole raft these bills. Many of them have slowed down in the progress area. Do you think your voice is being heard in these halls?

SHARIF: I really don't because our lame duck has been hijacked by corporations and special interests. And they have, like, usurped the democracy of our state legislature, which should be accountable to the people who elected them and they're beholden to special interests right now.

MARQUEZ: And I take it you're not going away?

SHARIF: No, I'm not.

MARQUEZ: Thank you very, very much.

The legislature was supposed to wrap up today. It looks like it will go into next week.

BALDWIN: Yes.

MARQUEZ: Some of the most controversial provisions they're considering may be considered then -- Brooke? BALDWIN: We'll talk then.

Miguel Marquez, thank you very much in Lansing.

MARQUEZ: Thanks.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: We continue on. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

President Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, had his day in court and ran with it, going right after the president. Cohen ripped Trump just before being sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution.

So far, this is the most severe outcome in this Russia investigation. And it all comes after Cohen pleaded guilty to committing nine federal crimes, some of which, so say Cohen and prosecutors, were committed out of loyalty to Donald Trump.

Now the man who once famously said he'd take a bullet for him, fired back against husband boss of 10-plus years saying to the judge, quote, "Today is one of the most meaningful days of my life," Michael Cohen says. "I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real-estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired." The father of two added he was committed to ensuring that, quote, "Ensuring that history will not remember me as the villain of his story."

Cohen also brought up this recent insult from the president himself.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's a weak person, and by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he's a weak person, and what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Michael Cohen said Trump was correct in calling him weak, adding, quote, "But for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because, time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds."

With me now, Kara Scannell, who was in the courtroom during the hearing. And CNN White House Correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Kara, to you first.

You were in there. You say it was very emotional in the courtroom?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Brooke, it was very emotional. Michael Cohen was addressing the judge, admitting to the crimes. Those comments that you read, what he was saying about President Trump. But when it came to talking about his family, he got very emotional. His voice cracked and he was choking. And he also apologized to the American people. And at that moment, he got fairly emotional saying the American public deserves to know the truth.

And then the judge started addressing Michael Cohen, and saying that he wants to encourage people to cooperate but, at the same time, he said Cohen committed serious crimes, tax fraud, lying, the campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. And he said because of the need to have deterrence for these crimes that the sentence needs to be amplified. The judge said the range Cohen was facing was between four and five years. He decided to give him three years in prison.