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Source: Trump Was in The Room When Cohen and National Enquirer Publisher Discussed Hush Money Payments. Aired on 8-9 ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:16] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

We begin tonight with two pieces of breaking news. A new investigation, this time the president's inaugural committee over how it spent the more than $100 million it raised and whether it accepted donations from people looking to gain influence or access to new administration. We'll have more details on that.

But first, the other breaking news tonight, more evidence that shows the president seems incapable of telling the truth about almost any aspect of the hush money payments that just sent his former lawyer to prison. The president said today that he never directed Michael Cohen to do anything wrong. He said a lot of other truth challenged things which we'll get to.

But tonight, we now know that two months after he began his presidential campaign, Donald Trump was in the room at a meeting with Michael Cohen and David Pecker, the head of the company that owns "The National Enquirer" as Pecker offered to help the campaign identify negative stories about his relationships with women, stories that would then be killed, kept from the public.

This is from a court document in the immunity deal that the company, AMI, has reached with prosecutors. One sentence caught our eye when this story came out yesterday. I'm quoting: In or about August 2015, David Pecker, the chairman and chief executive officer of AMI, met with Michael Cohen, an attorney for presidential candidate and at least one other member of the campaign.

Well, today, we learned the one other member of the campaign, according to a source familiar with the matter, was Donald J. Trump, the number one member of said campaign. Now, before this news came out, the president gave an interview where he informed Fox News viewers that everything's fine. He didn't do anything wrong, and even if he did, it wasn't wrong anyway.

Here's what he said when he was asked about AMI, Pecker, and the "National Enquirer."


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think -- and I have to go check. I don't think they even paid any money to that tabloid, OK? I don't think we made a payment to that tabloid. I was asking the question last -- I don't think we made a payment.


COOPER: That was it because the president was then off to the races talking about Michael Cohen who has been sentenced to three years in prison for, among other things, covering up what he called the president's dirty deeds. That includes campaign finance violations related to those payments to keep the stories of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal from getting out right before the election. Now, here's what the president said today about the payments.


TRUMP: Number one, they say it's not a campaign finance violation. Number two, or it's not even under campaign finance. Number two, if it was, it's not even a violation. Number three, it's a civil matter. These people writing stories that Trump did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.


COOPER: Well, number one, they, meaning prosecutors, say it is a campaign violation. Number two, it is under campaign finance, and it is a violation. Number three, it is not a civil matter. It's a criminal matter, a felony criminal matter that implicates the president and for which his former lawyer is going to prison.

And given the way the president has tried to trash talk Michael Cohen recently, the question is, why did he hire him as his fixer?


TRUMP: Very low level work.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you need him?

TRUMP: He did more public relations and he did law.

Whatever he did, he did on his own. He's a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing. That's why you pay them a lot of money, et cetera, et cetera.

He is a lawyer. He represents a client. I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong.


COOPER: Did you catch the irony there? Because keeping him honest, which is it? Was he just a low level PR guy, public relations guy, or was he a high paid lawyer representing Donald Trump and doing lawyer stuff but not taking direction somehow from his client?

Again, we now know Donald Trump was in the room with Michael Cohen and David Pecker in 2015 talking about how to keep stories about women from seeing the light of day and, oh, yes, thanks to Michael Cohen, we actually have a recording of him and Donald Trump talking about doing just that.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David. So that I'm going to do that right away.

TRUMP: Give it to me.

COHEN: I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with funding -- yes. And it's all the stuff, all the stuff, because you know, you never know where that company, never know where he's going to be.

TRUMP: If he gets hit by a track.

COHEN: Correct.


COOPER: Might get hit by a truck.

Quick reminder, the president feigned ignorance about women being paid off at all, at least one of them.


REPORTER: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No. No.

REPORTER: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?

TRUMP: I don't know. No.


COOPER: Let's not forget, that was the story right up until Rudy Giuliani made a whoopsy on "Hannity."


[20:05:01] RUDY GIULIANI, TRUMP LAWYER: It's not campaign money. No campaign finance violation.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: They funneled it through the law firm.

GIULIANI: Funneled it and the president repaid it.

HANNITY: Oh, I didn't know he did.




Of course, Sarah Sanders who by the way this week said she wants to be remembered for honesty and transparency kept up the charade from the White House podium.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There was no knowledge of any payments from the president and he's denied all of these allegations.

REPORTER: Specifically can I ask, did the president approve of the payment that was made in October of 2016 by his long-time lawyer and advisor Michael Cohen?

SANDERS: Look, the president has addressed these directly and made --


COOPER; You know what, let's forget that. Let's not listen to that again. We played that whole thing last night. It's just miss direction, it's double speak, it's smock screen after smock screen. Either that or she wasn't informed about the truth. And if that's the case, why would she continue standing there being the mouth piece for someone who is lying to her just like he's lying to the American people?

It's clear as day at this point, sadly, that the president and his fixer and David Pecker worked together to keep stories from the public. Now that Cohen is singing and Pecker is free to as well with his own immunity deal, other employees of the "National Enquirer" are being told to speak, there's no telling what else could come out. I mean, maybe there is nothing more that they know about, or maybe they have files of what Michael Cohen this week called dirty deeds.

The president today continued to insist, this is all part of a conspiracy to embarrass him.


TRUMP: What he did was all unrelated to me, except for the two campaign finance charges that are not criminal and shouldn't have been on there. They put that on to embarrass me. They put those two charges on to embarrass me. They're not criminal charges, number one. That's according -- Harris --

INTERVIEWER: I've interviewed people --

TRUMP: It's either Cohen or the prosecutors, in order to embarrass me, said listen, I'm making this deal for reduced time and everything else. Do me a favor. Put these two charges on. They're not criminal charges.


COOPER: I hate to repeat myself, but facts are facts. They're criminal charges. What Cohen did was, of course, related to the president. They talked about it together with David Pecker.

And this notion somehow prosecutors are trying to embarrass the president, keeping him honest, prosecutors didn't force the president to have extramarital affairs with a porn star and Playboy model. Then deny it and pay them to keep them quiet before the election, then lie about knowing about that, then call it a simple private transaction that wasn't wrong anyway. Are you following?

The president did get one thing right. It is, indeed, embarrassing. When it was all being cooked up, he was in the room where it happened.

Joining us now is our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

So, I mean, the president's stories about these payments, it's just -- it's shifted. It's been all over the place over the last several months.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson. Incredibly, this has nothing really to do with the Russia investigation. It has to do with the scheme to payoff these alleged mistresses and just this evening, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, briefly talked to reporters and she said the president was clear that he directed no one to do anything wrong, particularly Michael Cohen.

Anderson, he hasn't been clear about that. As you just played in the clip from when he was on Air Force One back in April, he denied even knowing about this payment back in April. And that obviously runs counter to what we know now, that he did know about those payments. Rudy Giuliani said as much in that interview with Hannity that you played.

And incredibly, what we're finding out tonight and you just mentioned this a few moments ago, the president was involved, according to a source talking to CNN, in that meeting with Michael Cohen and David Pecker way back in August of 2015. That's shortly after he launched his bid for the presidency and more than a year before these payments apparently were made to keep these two people from telling their stories just before the 2016 election.

And so it sounds like, Anderson, what we just don't have the full story from the president. He did that interview today, but even as he was sitting there with a friendly outlet, he was all over the place when it came to explaining these payments.

COOPER: Yes, he also apparently made his case on Twitter today. What did he have to say there?

ACOSTA: That's right. He was really blaming his lawyer, Michael Cohen, his former attorney Michael Cohen, in all of this saying Michael Cohen should have understood the law. He was essentially saying, well, how can I be held responsible for any of this? I had a lawyer who was supposed to be taking care of all this.

That kind of defense is obviously not going to hold up in a court of law. And as you mentioned, as he was saying in that interview today that he was relying on Michael Cohen to keep him out of hot water, he was also at the same time dissing Michael Cohen's legal expertise. He was somebody who essentially talked on TV and didn't do that job very well.

So, the president time and again, Anderson -- and again, this was not a high-pressure environment he was in earlier today -- was all over the place and trying to have it both ways.

[20:10:01] COOPER: One minute Michael Cohen is just a low-level public relations person who doesn't do much law, and then he's the president's lawyer and should have known better.

ACOSTA: He's done this before, he's done this before with Paul Manafort. He says Paul Manafort didn't serve with my campaign for very long. He did it with George Papadopoulos. Remember when they called him the coffee boy. And so on. So this is a pattern for this president.

COOPER: Is there any sense what's going on behind the scenes, how the president is feeling about all this or dealing with this?

ACOSTA: Well, from what we understand, he's still upset about all of this, but I talked to a source close to the White House earlier today that of all people, the outgoing chief of staff John Kelly is, quote, relieved that he's going to be leave being the White House, or is expected to leave the White House at the end of the month. Who can blame him? There is just an avalanche of scandal after scandal hitting this president simultaneously at the end of the year.

And as we saw earlier today, the president both on Twitter and the interview on Fox just can't seem to keep his head above water in all this, Anderson.

COOPER: Jim Acosta, appreciate it, thank you.

A lot to talk about tonight. Joining me are chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, former federal prosecutor Shan Wu, "USA Today" columnist, Kirsten Powers, former Senator Rick Santorum.

Jeff, how much does it change things if the president was in this meeting with David Pecker and Michael Cohen in 2015?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, it eliminates the whole argument that the reason for this payment was to spare Melania Trump embarrassment because, according to prosecutors and according to Cohen and apparently according to Pecker, the reason for this meeting was to talk about how the "National Enquirer" was going to pay women to keep them quiet during the campaign. Melania had nothing to do with it.

And the point -- and that also has legal implications because paying money to benefit a campaign has reporting requirements, dollar amount requirements, and thus when you violate them, as Michael Cohen admitted that he had, that's a crime.

So it's very significant. And it also serves as corroboration of everything Michael Cohen was saying on this issue.

COOPER: Right. Shan, I mean, that last point Jeff just made is important one, because the president is saying you can't trust Michael Cohen, he's a liar, clearly, he's done a lot of lying over the course of his career. But now, David Pecker, and AMI, I mean, they have signed a document stating facts and they say about this meeting as Jeff said, it was specifically to keep women quiet so it didn't impact the election.

SHAN WU, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It's completely contradicting what President Trump is saying. I mean, he's attempting to mount what some of us have been expecting for a long time, an advice of counsel defense. But the problem is his counsel is going to disagree with him and now there are others who are obviously going to disagree with him, including David Pecker. He's just really boxed himself in here.

And I mean, Jeff will probably agree with this. He has violated the first law in white collar criminal defense which is to keep your mouth shut unless you have a deal with the prosecution to talk. He's just constantly getting himself in more trouble with all this talk.

TOOBIN: Or if you're president of the United States and have to answer questions on a fairly regular basis, you could decline to answer detailed questions, but he keeps explaining and explaining and explaining and it always gets more and more false.

COOPER: Kirsten, I keep imagining trying -- the president's lawyers watching this interview today when you have a client who as Shan and Jeff were just talking about, keeps talking.

KIRSTEN POWERS, USA TODAY COLUMNIST: Yes, he keeps talking and he keeps contradicting himself, and he keeps saying things that I think just make things worse. I mean, even the idea that he is saying that he -- he told Michael Cohen to do this, but it was Michael Cohen's job to know that it was illegal and so he shouldn't have done it. I mean, look, if I tell my accountant to do something and my accountant goes ahead and does it and it's illegal and doesn't tell me, I'm not off the hook. That's just not the way that it works.

COOPER: Senator Santorum, I mean, the president said this was done solely to embarrass him. That is not exactly how the Justice Department works, is it?

RICK SANTORUM (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR, PENNSYLVANIA: Well, look, I think Bob Mueller has a political motive here and I do believe the Justice Department is very much targeted in --

COOPER: This comes from the Southern District of New York, which is run by --


SANTORUM: I said both. I said they're both -- there's no question here that there is -- that there's a motive here to get to the president. I mean, let's just be honest. Bob Mueller is there to get to the president. And the Southern District of New York is a different investigation --

COOPER: But isn't it run by a Trump appointee?

SANTORUM: Well, it's not run by a Trump appointee buzz the Trump appointee recused himself. It's run by a career person. We have no idea the background of that person.

The bottom line is here, I think the greatest damage that's been done is Donald Trump doing what you just said, out there spinning different story after different story, not telling the truth. And that to me is doing the most political damage right now.

[20:15:01] I don't believe, particularly the Stormy Daniels piece, is problematic at all from the standpoint of the law.

The AMI thing might be a little bit more because the Stormy Daniels contribution is not -- is not a violation of itself. The violation is he didn't report it. The contribution itself is not illegal. But the fact he didn't report it is illegal.

On the other case, AMI, it's a corporate contribution, somebody else, if he directed it then you have a different story. That is an illegal contribution.

So I think they're two different things. I don't know all the facts of the AMI. I don't think we know that yet. But to me the most damaging thing is the fact the president isn't coming -- hasn't come clean over the course of time.

TOOBIN: Anderson, Anderson, putting aside the whole issue of how amazing it is to listen to Rick Santorum who made his entire career successful for a time on the basis of morality in politics, making excuses for paying off porn stars and women with whom you've had affairs, putting that to one side, isn't the reason --

SANTORUM: Jeffrey, you're not going to put that to the side. I'm not making excuses for Donald Trump having affair with a porn star. I mean, that's disgusting. It' it's tawdry.

I'm saying -- I'm addressing the question as to what is the illegality involve here. The illegality is not the contribution. The illegality is not reporting it.

I'm not condoning it and don't suggest that I am.

TOOBIN: And what you keep saying is that, you know, his problem that he keeps lying and his explanations about it. Isn't the reason he's lying because he did something bad in the first place? If he did nothing wrong, why doesn't he tell a straightforward version of the truth?

SANTORUM: He did something bad in having an affair with a porn star, I agree with you, that's horrible.

COOPER: Shan? WU: Yes, I think it's important to differentiate here. It's not a political question. It's a legal question because of the timing of what he's doing, because of the non-reporting. All those things make it a crime.

And that's not just a political question. The political question is going to be what does the Congress want to do with it? Do they want to move forward in impeachment or not? But the Justice Department -- his Justice Department has looked at the facts and these facts are overwhelmingly showing that he has helped commit a crime. That's why they've accused him of that. Even though they haven't indicted him, he's been accused of it.

COOPER: Kirsten, it is pretty incredible whether it's Manafort or Papadopoulos or Michael Cohen, that as soon as the president doesn't have anything to do with you any more, you're a low-level employee in the first place and he barely knew the person.

POWERS: Yes, right, fetching coffee even if you were his right hand person. He just can't do that with Michael Cohen. I mean, that's completely ridiculous. This is somebody he was attached at the hip with.

I just have to say I'm having a hard time following, Rick, your argument because you're basically saying he didn't commit a crime except for the crime that he committed. You know? It's like that's the whole point. The point -- it's not about whether it was the contribution. It's about the conspiracy basically to hide this.

And, you know, this was supposed to be -- this was clearly done because of the campaign, even though all Trump supporters and Donald Trump have been saying for the last 11 months basically that it wasn't. We now know that that is exactly what it was for. And that is a crime. I don't follow the point of because --


SANTORUM: Kirsten, let's just be honest. If Donald Trump -- okay, let's say Donald Trump had taken $150,000 or 15,000, pick a number, of his own money and decided to run it through Michael Cohen to buy ads on television and didn't want to tell anybody, would we be upset, would we be trying to impeach him?


SANTORUM: But it's the same thing. He used the money to benefit the campaign. It's not what he did was wrong, it's what he didn't report was wrong.

So this conspiracy -- you're making up -- every campaign has almost -- almost every campaign for president, I think every one but mine in 2012 had a violation -- reporting violation. Does that mean they defrauded themselves in running? No. Does it mean they had a conspiracy? No.

People don't report things. I believe the president on this one, that it's Michael Cohen's fault for not actually telling him, by the way, you have to report this or you might want to think about reporting it. Not the president's fault.

COOPER: Kirsten?

POWERS: Well, it is a conspiracy actually. You know, when you have -- there are three people involved, you know, we're talking about between the two women. And so this was -- and it was meant to be hidden. The idea that the president, you know, at the time he wasn't president, but he was running for office, didn't know that money spent to hide information from voters so that they -- the campaign wouldn't be affected somehow related to the campaign isn't plausible.


COOPER: Let her finish.

POWERS: Like I said, even if that's true, even if that's true -- I gave the example. If I tell my accountant to do something wrong and they do it, I'm still accountable for it.

[20:20:03] I don't understand why you think he's not accountable for his behavior.

SANTORUM: The FEC has ruled on more than one occasion that these types of contributions are not necessarily illegal, and so, and not necessarily have to be disclosed. And so, for example, you take the Edwards case. The FEC, when they looked at the Edwards case, did not have any charges brought against Edwards.

Now, the district -- the local attorneys did. They brought it -- federal attorney did, but the FEC didn't. So I think you can actually look at that case and say, you know what, I don't have to disclose this because the FEC said it's not a problem.

WU: That's exactly backwards. That is exactly backwards. I mean, people love to try to bring up the Edwards case. He was indicted and went to trial and won. This is not a question of legally not being charged.

SANTORUM: The FEC didn't prosecute the case.

COOPER: Let him respond.

SANTORUM: The FEC didn't prosecute the case. You know that, right?

COOPER: Shan, go ahead.

WU: Right, the FEC didn't prosecute the case. The Justice Department prosecuted the case. We're talking about crimes here.

SANTORUM: It's not a crime. The FEC said it wasn't a crime.

WU: Even if you're right and you can find some FEC opinion to support that, the Justice Department -- right.

SANTORUM: And they failed to convict.

WU: And they have charged -- right, but that's different than saying it is not a crime to begin with.

SANTORUM: Look, the Justice Department can indict people, as I said, they can indict a ham sandwich if you want to indict a ham sandwich. The bottom line is, is it really a crime? The FEC, which if you look at what the Justice Department should have done, which is to look to the FEC and see whether the FEC interprets that as a crime, which they did not, and went ahead and went after John Edwards anyway.

If you look at what they're supposed to do, they're supposed to look to the agency whose job it is to enforce the law and they didn't do that.

COOPER: All right. I have to get a break in. We're going to continue the conversation when we come back.

Later, Ronan Farrow who has done some of the best reporting on catch and kill by the "National Enquirer," we'll talk to him about the latest developments.

Tonight, more on the symbiotic relation between Donald Trump and David Pecker, how each benefited from the other.

Plus, the inauguration investigation, breaking news on what the feds want know and why it could become another headache for the president.


COOPER: We're talking about new reporting on who else was in the room with Michael Cohen and tabloid publisher David Pecker as they discussed buying the silence of two women that Donald Trump allegedly slept with.

Here's more of what the president told Fox News today about his dealings with Cohen.


TRUMP: Let me tell you, I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own. He's a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing. That's why you pay them a lot of money, et cetera, et cetera.

He is a lawyer. He represents a client. I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong. And he understands that.


COOPER: Well, it's a funny thing considering now we know the other person in the room with David Pecker and Michael Cohen was Donald J. Trump.

Back with our own people in the room. Jeff Toobin, before the break, Senator Santorum said that he thinks

the Justice Department is politically motivated. Do you agree with that and are out to get Donald Trump?

TOOBIN: I don't. And I think it's especially evident here in the Southern District of New York, which is not even part of the special counsel's office. And the political appointees have been recused. So the people making the decision are career prosecutors who, you know, I am unaware of any political -- political bias there.

I mean, it just strikes me as kind of a last motive -- last refuge of desperation to criticize people you know absolutely nothing about, to say that they have bad motives. I mean, you have no evidence of that.

SANTORUM: You're absolutely right. There is a long history of that office and other U.S. attorneys offices of people making a name for themselves by going after politicians.

And so, my biggest problem with this whole thing is -- and I think members of Congress, particularly when they get to impeachment, are going to think long and hard about whether violations of the FEC are going to lead to you losing your office, because that's what we're really talking about here. If FEC violations, campaign finance violations being the cause when almost every political campaign has some sort of, you know, illegality when it comes to the way they operate their campaign.

So I think if this is all there is and it's tawdry, it's unseemly, it's horrible stuff, I agree. I just don't think most politicians who know that you have folks sitting in district attorneys offices and U.S. attorneys offices trying to gun for a politician so they can make a name for themselves, I don't think they're going to, you know, feed the lion when it comes to impeachment on these kinds of grounds.

TOOBIN: Why are you talking about impeachment, much more than Nancy Pelosi or Jerry Nadler who are explicitly not talking about impeachment?

SANTORUM: Well, because that's the ultimate, you know, remedy here. I mean, the remedy here for -- with Donald Trump is if he's, quote, guilty of these campaign finance violations is to go after him through the impeachment process.

COOPER: Kirsten, it is pretty extraordinary, though, when you think about it and you pull back from this a little bit, to think about Donald Trump, a man who has announced his candidacy, sitting in the room with David Pecker from the "National Enquirer", an old buddy of his, and Michael Cohen, who is his attorney, although he now claims he was just a low-level PR guy, and being part of -- I mean, whether it's a conspiracy, it's three people talking about this plan from a tabloid publisher with enormous power to buy stories and kill them so that it helps the guy who is running for president. I mean, that's not normal.

POWERS: Right. And I think -- rick keeps saying there's all these FEC campaign finance violations and, Rick, you said you had some on your campaign.


POWERS: I'm sure you did and I'm sure they happened.

But they're not like this, OK. What's different is they're mistakes, they're oversights. This wasn't a mistake or oversight. This was intentional.

And the reason it wasn't reported is because what do you think sort of happened if it had been reported? It would have become news because reporters would have gone through the report and they would have said, "Why is this money being paid? Who is it being paid to?" And it would have become a story. So it actually was a conspiracy to hide it.

That's very different than making a mistake and not reporting something because of oversight or for some other reason. And so to keep comparing that to other campaign violations -- campaign finance violations, I don't think is accurate.


RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: If you permit me to address that, Anderson --


SANTORUM: -- because what you're saying is that all these violations are mistakes, and in fact they're not. What happens in a lot of this campaign finance violations is there's ambiguity in the FEC. And as a result of that, people try to drive a truck through it.

We saw that happened in the 2016 race where campaigns were using super PACs to coordinate with their campaigns. Why, because the FEC was sort of uncertain as to what was legal and what was not. Here you have an area that's clearly uncertain.

POWERS: But that's not what happened here.

SANTORUM: But it's uncertain whether this is illegal or not and some people may be taking advantage of it. I think it's very much like what goes on in a lot of presidential campaigns.

COOPER: All right. We're going to just leave it there because we have --

POWERS: Really, you think in most presidential campaigns people are sitting around talking about paying off people --

SANTORUM: I think they're sitting around trying to figure out ways to get around.

POWERS: -- and then not reporting it, really?

SANTORUM: I think they're trying to figure out ways to get around FEC laws so they can more efficiently run their campaigns. Yes, I think they do that.

COOPER: But not a lot of campaigns --

SANTORUM: That's different in what you're saying.

COOPER: But not a lot of campaigns are in league with the major tabloid publisher.

SANTORUM: I agree. This is a very -- my point is what you have here is very bad ugly tawdry facts. But the same thing going on, which is trying to take ambiguities in the campaign finance law and abuse them.

COOPER: OK. All right, Rick Santorum, Kirsten Powers, John Lieu (ph), Jeff Toobin, appreciate it. Thank you, good discussion.

Well, breaking news, another federal criminal investigation swirling around the Trump administration, this time focusing on millions of dollars raised, really tens of millions of dollars raised in the inauguration and whether some big donors thought they were buying influence instead.


[20:35:25] COOPER: More breaking news tonight, what we're learning about a new criminal investigation dating back quite literally to day one of the Trump administration. The "Wall Street Journal" broke it.

Federal prosecutors are looking into whether the Trump inauguration committee misspent the money it raised and crucially whether top donors gave big bucks to quote -- the journal, "in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions." In short, was it paid for play? Rebecca Davis O'Brien shares the "Journal" byline as well. She's at phone line with us.

Rebecca, what are investigators looking into exactly?

REBECCA DAVIS O'BRIEN, REPORTER, WALL STREET JOURNAL (on the phone): And so what we wrote about today was the -- it's an early stage investigation into Trump's inaugural fund and what we understand is that they're asking some questions about the source of -- they record $107 million that the committee raised and what was done with that money.

There have been questions circling for months now about what, you know, the sort of murky spending in that -- of that record amount of money. So, I mean, they're trying to get to the bottom of that.

COOPER: And is the idea that -- I mean, that this is about pay to play? My understanding -- I mean, this is about pay to play, about access, about essentially people giving money in order to get access. Is that correct?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think that's where you see, you know, that this is not just stemming from the Michael Cohen investigation, but also touches on aspects of the special counsel's investigation. I mean, we don't know exactly -- what crimes, if any, have been committee and what would be charged.

But I think part of this is certainly looking at what these donors gave and what they expected or what they received. But it's also partly about what happened with the inaugural committee's expenditures and, you know, what exactly were they paying $103 million for.

COOPER: And I understand that this all stand from a recorded conversation between a former adviser to Melania Trump and Michael Cohen? Who was it and what was said?

O'BRIEN: Well, we know that the investigation stems in part from that, or that it's considered likely a piece of evidence in that investigation. That recording took place between Michael Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff who was a former advisor to Melania Trump.

She had been part of the inaugural planning and at some point in that process, she spoke with Mr. Cohen with this on the phone and she expressed concerns about how the inaugural fund was spending, the inaugural committee was spending money. And now that's in the hands of federal prosecutors as a result of the raid on Michael Cohen's home and office and hotel room back in April.

COOPER: And is it clear what spending Wolkoff was concerned about?

O'BRIEN: It's not quite clear but, you know, she had worked -- she knew Mr. Cohen -- we understand that he had been a lawyer for her on a previous matter, so I don't know who initiated that conversation, but she had been concerned about, you know, just the volume of spending and maybe, you know, we're still trying to get to the bottom of this.

COOPER: Rebecca Davis O'Brien, appreciate your reporting and appreciate you talking with us tonight. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Thank you so much.

COOPER: I want to dig deeper into where this story may go next, especially with Democrats shortly taking control of the House of Representatives and already promising greater oversight on a number of fronts.

California Democrat Eric Swalwell serves on the House Judiciary Committee, he joins me now. Congressman Swalwell, I mean, what if these inaugural donations were part of, you know, from donors who wanted access? I mean, doesn't that happen in politics all the time? Is that really any different than why people would donate to an inaugural committee?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Good evening, Anderson. It shouldn't happen, and it would be breaking one of the, I would say, fundamental promises that Donald Trump made during the campaign, that he was going to drain the swamp and breaking that promise on day one, you know, the inauguration, if pay to play is occurring.

But I think the bigger picture here is that you are now seeing more evidence than ever that Donald Trump was associated with a criminal campaign, a criminal transition, and presides today very likely over a criminal presidency.

And you've seen people in his orbit who are either under investigation have pled guilty or are serving prison time because of their association with one or all three of those different entities.

COOPER: The news that President Trump was in the room listening to, possibly coordinating the hush money payments with David Pecker, I mean, if true, would that be an offense that could justify impeachment? I mean, how serious is that?

[20:40:08] SWALWELL: I think that shows propensity evidence for what I think he's going to be on the hook for, for issues that actually matter to the American people. I don't think most people at home really care whether or not he paid off these individuals.

But the fact that he was in the room actually really corroborates other evidence we heard in our Russia investigation that on business dealings, on the campaign, Donald Trump was actually intimately involved with decisions, that he talked often with Donald Trump Jr., he talked often with Michael Cohen.

And if that is the case, if he's doing that with this payoff, then he was probably likely involved in the Trump Tower Moscow deal. He probably knew about the June 9 Trump Tower meeting where Russians offered dirt on Hillary Clinton and that's why I think it poses larger problems for his presidency.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, again, it goes back to the notion that, you know, Donald Trump, Jr., and Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, all who are in this meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower, learned in the introductory e-mail even that the Russian government is backing Donald Trump as a candidate, or wants him to win.

The idea that Donald Trump Jr. or somebody didn't tell the candidate that -- given, you know, Donald Trump's involvement in all these other smaller details or more specific details, I mean, it's hard to imagine that he wasn't informed.

SWALWELL: It would be out of character for the way that Donald Trump, the candidate, operated in the way that the children and the campaign team worked as well. And also today, Donald Trump said something that I thought was very interesting. He said Michael Cohen handled only low-level matters.

So if that's the case, and we know that Michael Cohen handled the payoff, I don't know if the President is suggesting that there are high-level matters and bigger payoffs and Michael Cohen who handled the Trump Tower multi-million dollar Moscow deal, were there other matters with Russia that involved higher-level attorneys? I don't think he wants to have it that way. I think Michael Cohen actually was intimately involved in Donald Trump's personal, political and financial worlds.

COOPER: Congressman Swalwell, appreciate you being here. Thank you very much.

SWALWELL: My pleasure. Thanks.

COOPER: The relationship between Donald Trump and tabloid publisher David Pecker, as we discuss, goes years back. Coming up, a look at how the "National Enquirer" once fawned over Mr. Trump and I'll talk with New Yorker Ronan Farrow who reported extensively on what was a mutually beneficial arrangement.


[20:46:04] COOPER: Recapping tonight's breaking news. A source familiar with the matter says that Donald Trump was part of an August 2015 meeting with "National Enquirer" publisher David Pecker. The purpose, Pecker's offer to help the Trump presidential campaign identify any negative stories about Trump's relationships, extra marital affairs with women.

One such story centered on "Playboy" model Karen McDougal who said she had a 10-month long relationship with Trump. Prosecutors say that American media incorporated the publisher of "National Enquirer" paid her $150,000 just before the election and her story never appeared in the "Enquirer." No surprise because when it came to Donald Trump, the front pages of the "Enquirer" were always on his side. Here's Randi Kaye.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Shocking IQ, nerves of steel, that's Donald Trump, according to the "National Enquirer" run by Trump pal, David Pecker. Months before Trump even announced his candidacy, the tabloid proudly published this had headline, "New poll, Donald Trump's the one."

In the "National Enquirer," Trump is always the hero. Trump's plan for world peace, world exclusive, Trump catches Russia's White House spy. Everyone else is the enemy. Truth about Russia scandal, Hillary framed Trump family. Explosive enquirer investigation proves Obama and Hillary ordered FBI to spy on Trump, and these on Hillary Clinton, "Six months to live," and "Blackmailed the FBI."

Why all the front page fawning? They have an agreement where David would not write anything that damages Donald. A senior AMI official told Jeffrey Toobin in "The New Yorker." Back during campaign 2016, Pecker propped up Trump, but played hardball with his opponents, running almost daily gossip hit pieces on Hillary Clinton. And even suggesting Ted Cruz's father played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If that was "The New York Times," they would have gotten Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting.

KAYE: In December 2016, weeks before Trump was inaugurated, the tabloid ran this. "Trump already restoring dignity to Oval Office."

(END VIDEOTAPE) KAYE: But this year, after prosecutors subpoenaed records from the "National Enquirer" as part of its probe into the Trump campaign, suddenly the glowing cover stories ceased. Since May, only three mentions of Trump across the tabloid's entire website. Anderson?

COOPER: Randy, thanks very much. Now, one of the journalists who's reported extensively about the relationship between Donald Trump and David Pecker long before many others is "The New Yorker" magazine's Ronan Farrow.

Given all your reporting on this, I mean, you've been leading the way on this story, were you surprised that Donald Trump was actually in the meeting that David Pecker and Michael Cohen had?

RONAN FARROW, THE NEW YORKER: Not even slightly. This was very clearly a close relationship. These were catch and kill operations that Trump had direct knowledge of, according to every source I talked to throughout this reporting. And this was a long-standing arrangement that they had by all accounts.

COOPER: And what's so fascinating -- I mean they denied catch and kill. I mean, they -- first of all, explain what catch and kill is. But they also -- AMI, they always said we don't engage in that. Now they have admitted, yes, that's what they did.

FARROW: Catch and kill is a tabloid practice of acquiring the rights to a story to suppress it, not to publish it, but to bury it.

COOPER: And in this case, as a favor to Donald Trump, and in this case also to not have a negative story to hurt his electoral.

FARROW: Well, so, I reported personally on two payments of this type by AMI, the "National Enquirer's" parent company, to suppress stories about Donald Trump. And at the time, as you pointed out, they claimed adamantly to me and to you when you did interviews around this, that this was purely a matter of journalistic integrity, that they had elected due to their own discretionary calls not to run these stories but in each case, we spoke to numerous sources around us that said otherwise, that said exactly what AMI is admitting to now that this was designed to influence the election.

[20:50:12] COOPER: It's so interesting, because I mean what we have seen just over the last two years or so, is so many people who say one thing in public, who deny everything, and lie to the American public only when they are under oath or signing a legal document do they admit, "Oh, actually, yes, that's exactly what we've been doing."

FARROW: We're both in the line of work, Anderson, where people lie to us a lot. It's an unusual payoff at the end of that story to then have a party to a story admitting so publicly, yes, we did lie about that.

COOPER: There's also, you know, a lot of questions about what other information if any David Pecker/AMI may have in a safe or may have on Donald Trump.

FARROW: You know, the reporting I've done is about these two payments that were made through AMI and an additional one directly.


FARROW: And then also, an additional payment to a Trump Tower doorman to suppress knowledge that he claimed he had about a supposed Trump love child that resulted from an affair.

And to be clear, we didn't uncover evidence that that claim was true, but we did uncover the money, the actual payment during the election cycle, and a lot of people saying it was designed to influence the outcome.

COOPER: Is it -- what's interesting also about this agreement that AMI reached with authorities is it's not just David Pecker saying this, it's they've agreed to have other employees give all the information that they know or talk about all that they know, correct?

FARROW: There were a number of AMI employees who were directly involved in these transactions and who were in regular receipt of pretty sensitive information about Donald Trump. Dylan Howard is another senior AMI person who is party to this agreement now with prosecutors. That makes a lot of sense. He knew a lot.

COOPER: Am I correct that this agreement is pretty open ended? They have to comment on anything that authorities are interested in.

FARROW: So we have knowledge of three election season payments, one directly through Cohen to Stormy Daniels, one through AMI, Karen McDougal, and another through AMI to suppress this alleged Trump love child story through a doorman at the Trump organization.

This agreement only pertains to the McDougal transaction, that is the only one that is explicitly reference there. It doesn't reference the other AMI related payment, which is interesting. Now that said, it's open ended in terms of the information AMI is providing to prosecutors. This gives prosecutors carb lunch (ph) to ask about everything that they did.

COOPER: So prosecutors can ask them about anything and they would have to give information if they have it?

FARROW: Got appears to be what they're saying when they announced this arrangement.

COOPER: Its fascinating discussion. Ronan Farrow, thank you so much.

FARROW: Thanks, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, let's check in with Chris to see what he's working on for "Cuomo Prime Time." Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Rolling the spot on. They are going to have to continue to ask, answer questions from prosecutors for this non- prosecution agreement and that's what triggered everybody's eyebrows about what else do they have to offer.


CUOMO: You know, it's a little bit of trickery with the facts there. One of the things that David Pecker reportedly was upset about was that he wasn't paid back by Trump when he was supposed to be. The President is now using that or his lawyers are, they're using it to advantage. They're saying, "Well, it never got completed as a transaction, so there's nothing anything wrong with it."

But, the reason we fought so hard to get that tape of the President then candidate Trump talking to Michael Cohen was because we knew that what the President knew and when was going to be relevant on this, not because of criminal exposure, but because of political exposure and his ability to tell the truth on things that matter.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, that tape which you broke on your show, I mean it takes on, you know, all new importance tonight given what we just learned. Chris, you're going to have more on that. That's about six minutes from now. See you then.

Up next for us, there's a lot more presidential interviews for the AG (ph), short on fact checks or follow up that there were a lot of printed out pieces of paper. "The Ridiculist" is next.


[20:58:08] COOPER: Time now for "The Ridiculist." You know that old philosophical riddle, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Well, tonight, we're pondering a modern version of it. If a tree falls in the forest and gets made into paper, that's then use to printout a bunch of stuff that the President takes to a Fox interview. Is it real life? The answer, I regret to inform you, is yes.


TRUMP: Look, Trump didn't violate campaign finance list and neither did the president, Trump (INAUDIBLE). So they're saying that --

HARRIS FAULKNER, FOX NEWS HOST: Oh, wait. I interviewed him on my program the other day.



COOPER: Oh, my god. Holy molly, what a quinky dink. Somebody wrote something that's more positive than is necessarily factual about the President and Fox News had already interviewed person. I mean, what are the chances?

Also, did he just say the headline was Trump didn't violate campaign finance laws and neither did the President? OK. Look, it's long been alleged by Rex Tillerson and others that President doesn't like to read. But he sure likes to get stuff printed out and then presented show and tell style as proof of something, I guess.


TRUMP: Here's another one. Michael Cohen plead guilty to something that's not even a crime. They put those two charges on to embarrass me. They're not criminal charges, number one. Now, that's according -- Harris, that's according to the top people.

FAULKNER: And I've interviewed --

TRUMP: These are people writing stories that Trump did nothing wrong. China, opened. It's going to open up its policy, a big policy shift. They're going to open up the whole country that they want to please President Trump.


COOPER: Well, that proves it. There's at least one printer at the White House. By the way, some other things that one could print off the internet if one was so inclined. Shocking CIA leak reveals, Dick Cheney -- oh, that's this one. Dick Cheney is a robot. Here's another one, finally indisputable proof, big foot spotted in Northern California, it says it right there. And man's 174 mile per hour sneeze blows wife's hair off. But over on Fox, the feeling was, the interview went pretty well.


FAULKNER: You and I traded a lot of papers and it's been a good conversation. Thank you, sir.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.


COOPER: With that, a friendly reminder that there's always a paper trail on the ridiculist.

News continues right now. I want to hand it over to Chris Cuomo, for CUOMO PRIME TIME.