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Accused Russian Spy Butina Accepting Plea Deal in Court; Trump Legal Peril Grows as Prosecutors Flip Tabloid Publisher; Cohen & AMI Say Hush Money Payments Were to Influence Election; Trump Says Mexico Will Pay for Wall but Asks Congress for $5 Billion. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:05] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

Breaking news out of federal court in Washington, D.C. Just moments ago, a 30-year-old former American University grad student walked into a courtroom to formerly strike a deal as an accused Russian spy now working with the U.S. government. Maria Butina was arrested back in July. At first, she insisted she was innocent. Now, she's cooperating with investigators, offering up information on how and why she was trying to infiltrate U.S. political circles, including the powerful groups like the NRA.

It's worth noting, earlier this morning, Moscow demanded her, quote, "swift release."

Let's figure out what's going on here today. Let's begin outside the court. Jessica Schneider is there.

Jessica, what's going on inside?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, 29-year-old Maria Butina, who once portrayed herself as a graduate student here in Washington, D.C., at American University, now set to enter a guilty plea. That formal entry of the guilty plea not happening just yet, but right now inside the courtroom, the judge is walking her through this process, reminding her that by pleading guilty, she is waiving her rights here. And Maria Butina said clearly in court, yes, she understands exactly what this process is about, and she's prepared to enter that guilty plea.

You know, Maria Butina stood up in court just a little while ago and did disclose she has signed a plea agreement. We know that she's expected any minute now to formally enter that guilty plea as to this conspiracy charge.

What's remarkable here is that in these plea talks, we know that Maria Butina has in fact been cooperating with prosecutors. These are the same prosecutors who say she was acting at the direction of a former Russian bank official, Aleksandr Torshin, who guided her in infiltrating these conservative political groups, including the National Rifle Association. Prosecutors say she was also working with her so-called boyfriend, Paul Erickson, an American conservative activist, to establish these back channels and these informal communications with U.S. political officials. And this is the key, all to benefit the Russian -- all to benefit the country of Russia.

That's interesting because prosecutors in these talks with Maria Butina, they may have been trying to get more information as to how exactly Russia has been trying to infiltrate these political groups. Maybe more information as well on how Russia has meddled and interfered with elections, including, of course, the 2016 election. All of that not being exposed in court. Uncertain how much prosecutors will disclose about their cooperation talks with Maria Butina. But, Kate, all of this unfolding in real time right now inside the D.C. district court.

A little bit of color for you, before the formal plea is entered, Maria Butina actually had a little talk with the judge because it turns out that while she's been in jail, she's been locked up ever since she was arrested and indicted here, Maria Butina has actually had calls with at least one journalist. In those calls that prosecutors have this tape of, Maria Butina talked about somebody who the prosecutors believe was her attorney as acting as a go-between and passing along messages to the journalists. Why does that matter? Because there's been a gag order in this case. No one has been allowed to talk to the media. The judge addressed that up front before beginning this formal plea hearing.

So it's all playing out right now in court, Kate. But quite a story here. A tantalizing story of this Russian woman who came to D.C., supposedly as a graduate student, but prosecutors saying she was actually acting as a foreign agent for Russia. We'll see how it plays out, but we expect any minute she'll be entering her guilty plea -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Much more to come, and really interested to hear more from coming inside the court.

We'll come back to you, Jessica. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

At the same time, President Trump's legal problems are growing darker and deeper as another longtime ally has turned on him. Federal prosecutors say AMI, the publisher of "National Enquirer" tabloid, led by a longtime friend of the president, has flipped on the president. After two years of denials, the company is now admitting it made a $150,000 payment to help the Trump presidential campaign and influence the election by silencing a Playboy playmate's claim that she had an affair with him.

CNN's Kara Scannell is joining me with more.

This was pretty amazing when this came out yesterday, Kara.


BOLDUAN: What do you have.

SCANNELL: We knew David Pecker, the chairman of AMI, who has been a longtime friend and ally of Donald Trump, had been granted immunity. But what we learned yesterday is the company itself has entered into a big cooperation agreement with the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, saying they will not get prosecuted as long as they admit these facts. And what the company is admitting is the reason behind the payments was to influence the outcome of the election. In effect, that's another witness who is saying these payments were made, it's Michael Cohen, the "National Enquirer," AMI, all of the individuals and employees who touched that, they're agreeing to this and agreeing to continue to cooperate. That's a key element of this non- prosecution agreement that they struck.

So the big open question is, where does it go from here?

[11:05:21] BOLDUAN: Yes.

SCANNELL: And the sense I get from talking to people is that it's not entirely clear. It's not a closed case. I don't think anyone is saying it's time to wrap up and go home. So we'll be watching to see where this plays out. But the fact that AMI now has to continue to cooperate, that's a key element of their agreement.

BOLDUAN: Continue to cooperate.

SCANNELL: To continue to cooperate as this goes forward. And it says, you know, this agreement locks them in for three years or until the investigation is over.

BOLDUAN: So basically whenever.


BOLDUAN: That's pretty amazing.

Great to see you, Kara. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

A really amazing turns of events we have seen in the last 24 hours.

Joining me to discuss is Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent and CNN legal and national security analyst. Julia Hirschfeld Davis, a CNN political analyst and congressional correspondent for "the New York Times." And CNN legal analyst, Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel in the Clinton White House.

Great to see you guys.

Asha, until now, as Kara pointed out, it was Michael Cohen's word against the president's. Now it's Cohen's word and AMI's word against the president that it was all done to influence the election. All of this illegal activity. What does this shift mean?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: This shift means that prosecutors have evidence and witnesses who are able to give testimony that the motive here was to influence the election, that it was done knowingly and willfully. This is key, because this is what moves the campaign finance violation into criminal territory. It is also what makes it very different from the Edwards, which Rudy Giuliani keeps wanting to liken this to. Because they are basically saying this was a campaign contribution directly to influence the campaign, we're willing to say that and willing to corroborate that the president's team knew about this.

BOLDUAN: Julie, the president himself, he was silent yesterday on this, despite the fact that Michael Cohen went after him directly and repeatedly in court, saying a number of things including that what he had done was cover up Trump's dirty deeds and much more. Today, the president not so silent, going off on Twitter, of course, and it seems kind of presenting his defense. To sum it up, he basically said, I never directed him to break the law, and he never broke the law when it came to campaign finance violations. Republicans have backed the president when it came to his word against Cohen's. We heard that over and over. What are they likely to do with his word against Cohen's and AMI's now?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think if past history is any guide, they're going to do the same thing they have been doing, which is keep defending the president. But I think that you make an important distinction between yesterday when he stayed silent and today when he felt the need to lash out on Twitter and make his case publicly. Because it's the case that since AMI is now presenting the same set of facts puts him in more immediate peril. He sees that, he knows that, I'm sure his lawyers are telling him that. What's extraordinary about his response today is he's essentially walking away completely to what he told us on Air Force One months ago, that he didn't have anything to do with these payments, it was all Michael Cohen. Tacitly admitting he did have something to do with the payments but just they weren't illegal and he never directed anyone to break the law. That's really a distinction without a difference because the entire point of what Michael Cohen has told prosecutors and AMI has now told prosecutors, this was in fact designed to influence the election. That in and of itself is what makes it a campaign finance violation. I think he's really back on his heels. Even though Republicans are probably likely to stay behind him, it's very clear that there's some major legal liability for him and that, at this point, there's more than one person who has dubious credibility making these claims.

BOLDUAN: It fits in -- as you point out, it fits into a string of things that would take too long to go into, of why cover up if it's not a problem. Why lie about something if it's something you're not concerned about?

Jack, I want to read part of what the president's defense was, part of what he said today was that, "Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me," the president says, "but he pleaded to two campaign charges, which were not criminal, and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis."

As one of my bosses said, I think pretty perfectly this morning, you can't plead guilty in federal criminal court to something that isn't criminal. It doesn't seem possible, even if you would like to, which I don't know why anyone would want to. So the president is just wrong. The fact, though, Jack, that he's focused here tells you what? [11:10:09] JACK QUINN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, look, this is a very

thin reed he's trying to rely on to prove that he didn't have the intent to commit -- the intent that's required for commission of this particular felony. But as you point out, we have the evidence and testimony of both AMI and his attorney, Michael Cohen, as to his intent. One has to wonder if this really was a legitimate advice-of- counsel situation. Did he ever ask Don McGahn, his campaign counsel, hey, I want to engage in this transaction with AMI, might that violate the campaign election act? McGahn was his election attorney. If there were an issue of compliance with the FEC laws, McGahn would have been consulted. Instead, we know AMI met with whom? Met with the campaign staff, with political operatives. Moreover, there was so much here that was designed to hide what was going on. We know that there was a phony invoice pretending that this was payments for services. There was a shell company set up to carry this out. Pecker sent a memo to Cohen saying, tear up the documents, so there's no evidence of what we're doing here. I mean, that kind of furtive behavior suggests guilty minds all around this transaction.

BOLDUAN: And we have audiotape that was released between a conversation between Trump and Cohen that lays out that Donald Trump, if you listen to it, it's that he knew that there was a payment, and it seems to indication he knew they needed to hide it in how they were talking about it. Not in cash, maybe in a check, in talking about financing it. That's one thing.


QUINN: Everything was in the dark shadows of the back alleys. That all says everything you need to know about whether this was a straightforward and honest transaction.

BOLDUAN: You know, it's not just silencing these negative stories. It wasn't just silencing negative stories about Trump, which we're talking about AMI. If you look -- and I think we can put it up -- some of the covers throughout the campaign that were on the "National Enquirer," it was a concerted effort. A concerted effort against Hillary Clinton to push negative stories about Hillary Clinton.

If the president was involved in the "catch and kill" of bad stories about him, I do wonder, Asha, what if he was involved in the negative stories about his opponent showing up as well?

RANGAPPA: Right. And actually, I would zoom out even further than that, Kate. You know, I don't know that there would be any kind of violation necessarily because of First Amendment issues, if he wants the "National Enquirer" to print bad stories about Hillary. But we have this whole WikiLeaks issue on the side, where they have stolen information, which is damaging to Hillary, which is being released at very opportune times to kind of take over the media cycle right after the "Access Hollywood" tape, for example. And I think if there's coordination with his campaign and that end, at the same time they're coordinating to keep this kind of damaging information about Trump secret, you really have a conspiracy here to try to influence and distort the views of the American public on the candidates running for office, which really undermines a fundamental pillar of our democracy, which is for people to have an informed vote.

BOLDUAN: Guys, stick around. We have more.

We're awaiting more additional details coming out of the plea hearing under way right on Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy. We'll have much more on that.

Plus, Congress has eight days to left to reach a deal to keep the government open. They're in a standoff still over the border wall, money for the border wall. Will the president's latest tweet about the new NAFTA shake the whole thing up?

[11:14:10] Stay with us.


BOLDUAN: All right. Right now, an accused Russian spy is finalizing a plea deal with federal prosecutors and we're getting more color out of the courtroom about Maria Butina, her state of mind, and what she was trying to do in the United States.

Jessica Schneider is outside the D.C. courthouse where this is taking place. She's back with me.

Jessica, what are you hearing from inside?

SCHNEIDER: Kate, Maria Butina previously said in court this morning that her mind is clear. And in just the past few moments, she has said she knowingly engaged in a conspiracy against the United States. This is all transpiring in court in a lead-up to when she will formally plead guilty.

The prosecutors really unveiling a lot in court in just the past few minutes. They said that she acted under the direction of a Russian bank official, who we have previously identified as Aleksandr Torshin. That's what they alleged in the court papers here. That's what they're alleging inside court right now. They said this in court, "Butina sought to establish an unofficial line of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics."

And of course, that's prosecutors talking about the fact that Maria Butina, while portraying her status as a graduate student in Washington, D.C., at American University, she was also hobnobbing with important political figures, mostly conservative political figures, and with political groups like the National Rifle Association. The prosecutors say she was acting under the direction of a Russian official and all for the benefit of the Russian Federation.

[11:20:07] So, yes, Maria Butina saying today that she knowingly conspired against the United States, that she understands that by entering this guilty plea, she's waiving her rights to any sort of trial. And she says she is prepared to face what she gets. We know she could face deportation, and she likely will.

So all of this, Kate, unfolding in real time. We're expecting the formal entry of the guilty plea any moment now -- Kate? BOLDUAN: Fascinating, Jessica. Thank you so much.

I want to bring back Asha and Jack to talk about this.

It's so unusual when you think about it on the most basic level, Jack, of you now have in the last few minutes now an admitted Russian spy talking about what she was trying to do, and now going to be working with the federal government. How important is this that she now admits to the judge that she engaged in a conspiracy against the United States to basically infiltrate herself amongst the powerful politicians and power brokers in U.S. politics?

QUINN: Well, it's seemingly relatively unimportant in and of itself, but it's part of a bigger picture that enhances its importance. It's important because, as the prosecutors have said, all of this activity on her part, and while the president was thinking about the Moscow Tower and stuff, this was all taking place at a time when Russia was engaged in a sustained campaign of interference with our elections. And you know, so you have the GRU intelligence officers, who have hacked into e-mails of various Democrats, including the campaign manager for Mrs. Clinton, all of those activities happening around the same time. And they all fit together as such a powerful demonstration of Russia's intent to affect our elections.

Now, what I think the special counsel is in the course of doing here is tracing the linkage between Trump's business and Trump's politics. And this is where I think the president will find himself on extremely thin and worrisome ice. If I had to guess, this is the issue I think that will really cause jeopardy to the presidency of Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: Asha, what do you think of what we're learning now in court that she's admitting to, how it fits into this larger conversation that we're having about Russian influence, the attempts of Russian influence in U.S. elections?

RANGAPPA: Right. I think Jack has it right. When we talk about Russian election interference, or active measures, what we're talking about is a number of different fronts that they're operating on. You have the disinformation campaign on social media. You have the hacking of the DNC server. This is called a political influence campaign. It's when spies are acting fairly overtly, and essentially trying to court, recruit, assess people who may be able to then influence policy towards Russia.

One thing that stands out to me here, two things that stand out to me here, most spies are here under diplomatic cover precisely so if they get caught, they have diplomatic immunity. Maria Butina was here without diplomatic cover, so she's caught in the crosshairs of criminal prosecution. The second thing, if the government has evidence that she was acting at the direction and control of Russia, that makes her an agent of a foreign power, which means she would have been a legitimate target FISA surveillance, and anyone talking to her during that time, if they were surveilling her, would be captured on that as well. I agree with Jack that there could be many other people who should be concerned at this point.

BOLDUAN: Fascinating. And the web is so impossible to follow.

Thank you guys so much for being here. I really appreciate it. We'll continue to follow what's coming out of the court with Maria Butina.

[11:24:09] Also this, coming up, Nancy Pelosi appears to have squashed the rebellion against her, locking in the support she needs to return as House speaker come January. What concessions did she make? What does it mean for House Democrats going forward?


BOLDUAN: Congress is racing towards another government shutdown. About a week away. The latest curveball, once again, President Trump. Try this on for size. On the sticking point on the border wall, the president says this now, that, "I often," he says, "state it one way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the wall. This has never changed." The president says, "Our new deal with Mexico and Canada, USMCA, is so much better than the old very costly and anti-USA NAFTA deal that just by the money we save, Mexico is paying for the wall."

So does that mean he doesn't need the $5 billion he's demanding from Congress now? What is going on here?

CNN's Phil Mattingly is joining me from Capitol Hill.

Phil, I ask you the same question, what is going on here?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Kate, one thing we have seen in the wake of that rather explosive meeting in the Oval Office is Democrats have used the president' words against him repeatedly, primarily from that meeting, his decision to take the blame for any shutdown onto himself. They're using that tweet against him as well.

Take a listen to what Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer had to say on the floor.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D-NY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: If the president really believed what he tweeted this morning, that his new NAFTA would pay for the wall, he wouldn't be threatening to shut down the government unless American taxpayers fund his wall. He can't have it both ways.