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Trump Says Mexico Will Pay for Wall but Asks Congress for $5 Billion; House & Senate Intel Committees Want to Speak Again to Indicted Trump Associates; Republicans "Don't Care" about Hush Money Payments; Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina Pleads Guilty. Aired 11:30- 12p ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, 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. You can't have it both ways. The president's position on the wall is totally contradictory, ill-informed and, frankly, irresponsible.


MATTINGLY: Kate, if you couldn't tell there, Democrats aren't exactly budging at this moment. That's both what you're seeing in their messaging strategy and also behind the scenes. There's no desire to move. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, is saying just that right now in her press conference that's ongoing.

The question becomes, where does that leave Republicans on Capitol Hill? The interesting element of that, Kate, I just spoke with Senator John Cornyn, the second top Republican in the Senate. I asked him what's his sense of the president's broader strategy to find a way out of this. He said I don't know right now. That's where things stand. Everybody on the Republican and Democratic side is waiting for the president to weigh in on what the next step should be. Republicans don't want to undercut him, but they acknowledge two things. First and foremost, the meeting and the president's willingness to take the blame on himself for a potential shutdown was problematic for them. Second off, he has to map out a way forward. That may involve a shutdown, which Republicans don't want, almost universally in the House and the Senate, or it may involve something else. The big question right now is what is that something else? Behind closed doors, Senate and House staffers are waiting to see before they try to craft any type of solution. And we're, what, eight days from a government shutdown -- Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Why craft it when it likely can be, will be, if you look at past history, definitely will be undercut in one tweet. We'll see.

Great to see you, phil. Thanks so much.

Joining me to discuss, CNN political commentators, Joe Lockhart, who was press secretary for President Bill Clinton, Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee and, very importantly, communications director for Eric Cantor. So he spent many a moment on Capitol Hill working on things like this.

Doug, how is Chuck Schumer wrong on this one --


BOLDUAN: -- on Mexico is paying for it or he needs five billion bucks?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: On the face of it, he's not. But ultimately, this comes down to what we saw yesterday in very short-term political gains for the main participants. When I heard Nancy Pelosi use the word "Trump shutdown" in the meeting, it was clear this was not about the shutdown or what may happen with the wall. It was about Nancy Pelosi locking down the renegade Democrats that she needs to get to 218 majority on the House speaker vote on January 3rd.

Same side of the coin with Donald Trump. Him going after Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in that meeting was more fodder to his base, the echo chamber on talk radio, and on some cable news for pro-Trump news, reaffirmed everything Trump said. So you can extrapolate two types of winners here, but ultimately, I think there's going to be a big loser and it's going to be the American voter.

BOLDUAN: Maybe this is one of those situations if we're looking at the raw politic, which is first they have to say these things and then 24, 48 hours before, staffers will start churning out a deal and say we have to, but maybe not. And this is what my question is. We have seen that the president is once again trying to flip the script on conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom on this one, Joe, is that shutdowns are not a good thing.


BOLDUAN: And the president very clearly declared that he would be fine with shutting it down if he doesn't get what he wants. He's flipped the script before. Do you think he can flip the script on this?

LOCKHART: I agree with a lot of what Doug said. There's a framework for a deal. They can get to a deal. The big thing here is -- and Nancy Pelosi had her agenda, the president had his, Schumer had his. The big thing now is whether Trump decides that shutdown politics work for him. They normally don't. They never really have. For either side.



LOCKHART: But if you talk about focusing attention on a shutdown versus focusing the attention on the fact that I'm now criminally liable and the Russians colluded and there's a Russian spy in court today, my former lawyer was sentenced yesterday, for Trump, that may be better politics.


BOLDUAN: That's a wild, wild, wild theory of look over there. To shut the government down so you don't focus on Russia?

LOCKHART: It is wild, it is irresponsible, and it's totally possible.


HEYE: Yes, you know, one thing that Donald Trump and his team are very good at, they play "Star Wars" with us all the time and basically say these are not the droids you're looking for. We go down a rabbit hole that distracts us from what is typically the news of the day. That's a skill that Donald Trump has. We fall for it every time. I'm guilty of it as well.

I would tell you that shutdowns aren't necessarily politically the disaster that a lot of folks like myself think they should be. In 2013, when we went through the shutdown, we called it internally in the House a "touch the stove" moment. The Republican members who wanted to shut down the government needed to touch the stove, find out it will burn them so we don't touch them again. It didn't burn them. Republicans haven't learned from that, that they can touch the stove again and again and not get burned. That's a real problem moving forward. Then the factor of Republicans who lost in pro-Hillary seats who may not want to cut a deal in the president's favor.

[11:35:24] BOLDUAN: Yes.

HEYE: And may not be there to vote anyway.

BOLDUAN: Children, do not touch the stove. I will leave you with that.

Great to see you guys.

Thanks, Joe.

Thanks, Doug.

HEYE: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Michael Cohen's attorney said his client will tell all he knows about Trump as soon as the special counsel completes its investigation. Will it include publicly testifying on Capitol Hill? Congressman Jim Himes, on the House Intelligence Committee, he is joining us next, live.


[11:40:24] BOLDUAN: The president's former fixer, Michael Cohen, is headed to prison for three years. Before he goes, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees want to speak with him again. He's not the only one. Senate Intel Chairman Richard Burr said, it's safe to say, if they were indicted, they were on our list. That could include former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and more. Big question now is, if they testify, what are they going to offer now that they haven't already?

Joining me is Democratic congressman from Connecticut, Jim Himes. He sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Is Michael Cohen definitely going to testify, be called to testify before your committee again?

HIMES: Well, I certainly think he should be. Remember, the committee hasn't been reconstituted. It will be in January. But he should be for two reasons. Number one, of course, he pled guilty to lying to Congress, so it would be great to get back to Congress to say, OK, exactly where else or where did you lie so we have a good clean sense of what the facts are. And of course, from the standpoint of the Intelligence Committee, the other really important thing is in the sentencing document, we learned that there were contacts by Russia to Michael Cohen as early as 2015. That, of course, is very much in the purview of the Intelligence Committee so we have a full picture of the many, many efforts that Russia made to get their tentacles into the Trump campaign.

BOLDUAN: Do you think he needs to testify publicly?

HIMES: Well, I think it's always valuable when these interviews are done publicly. Michael Cohen doesn't have classified information, so I don't want to prejudge how this is going to play out, but there's no reason why that testimony shouldn't be public. It's critical the American people hear first-hand what people have to say rather than hear from people like me or my Republican counterparts what they think they heard in the room.

BOLDUAN: Though it can't always become then more theater than substance.

HIMES: Right.

BOLDUAN: But still, as a member of the media, we always welcome it being in public view.

Republicans say, though, about the Cohen guilty plea and the sentencing, what I have heard is they're basically, they don't care because they say he's an admitted liar so they don't care what he has to say. They don't trust what he has to say. Can you trust what he says when he comes before you committee again?

HIMES: Well, the question around a guy like Michael Cohen, first of all, he pled guilty to lying, so he doesn't really have any incentive to lie anymore. But, yes, his credibility is somewhat damaged. What's sad about what you say is, you know, we're at a point here in this building where we have lost in November, at least on the House side, a lot of more moderate Republicans. They lost their elections. So we're down to a hard core of Republicans here in this building who just don't care. It doesn't matter that the president paid off a porn star illegally, that he paid off a playmate illegally. That's just all water under the bridge. And that's a very dangerous moment for an institution that is really designed constitutionally -- this has nothing to do with Democratic or Republican parties -- constitutionally to be a check and balance on the president.

BOLDUAN: Do you think, Congressman, that campaign finance violations are impeachable offenses?

HIMES: Well, look, theoretically, any crime is an impeachable offense. The Constitution says high crimes and misdemeanors. That's, of course, a decision for the Congress to make. I think while the president protests that it's not a crime, he's plain wrong because, of course, Michael Cohen pled guilty to that crime. But you got to not lose the big picture here, right. The American people need to realize that there's lots of things that influence an election. You can knock on doors, you can make phone calls, hire volunteers to hand out fliers. The president's campaign paid a lot of money to make sure that the fact that he paid off a porn star and paid off a Playboy playmate, not to disclose their affairs to the American people, did that have an impact? I have run for re-election a number of times. I'm guessing, if that were a story about me, it might impact my re- election. And of course, this was a presidential election that was won by tens of thousands of votes, and certain very specific localities. However you think about this, as a civil or criminal crime, there's no doubt in my mind this probably had a material impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.

BOLDUAN: What do you say to Republicans who say these are campaign finance violations, this has nothing to do with Russia collusion?

HIMES: Well, technically speaking, that is true. In other words, I wouldn't argue with them on that point. The fact, we heard from AMI today, Michael Cohen, at the direction of the president of the United States, worked with AMI to kill a story about an affair with a porn star. There's nothing Russian about that. But there's two points to be made here. There's lots of other Russian stuff, including Michael Cohen's admission he had been contacted by the Russians. And of course, in the Manafort -- this was also this week, in the Manafort documents, we learned there are all these previously undisclosed contacts with somebody named Konstantin Kilimnik, who we believe may have associations with Russian intelligence. So, yes, the campaign financial violations don't appear to have a Russian nexus but, just as every single other week in the last year or so, we're learning yet more this week about contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

[11:45:30] BOLDUAN: Congressman, if you could hold on with me, I'm getting news in from outside a federal court in Washington.

When we're talking about Russia, accused Russian spy, Maria Butina, in court to strike a plea deal with federal prosecutors and investigators.

Jessica Schneider is out front and has more breaking news coming in.

Jessica, what do you have?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, one hour into this hearing, it was one word that Maria Butina said. She just said it to the judge, guilty. Maria Butina has pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States, acting as an illegal foreign agent of Russia.

This has all unfolded amid tremendous detail from prosecutors. Prosecutors talking about the fact that Maria Butina started this conspiracy in March 2015. She actually drafted a policy proposal. She called it Description of a Diplomacy Project. In that proposal, she outlined her plan to act as an official conduit between Russia and the United States, particularly Republican officials or Republican- leaning groups like the National Rifle Association. Prosecutors detailed how she actually received $125,000 from that former Russian bank official, Aleksandr Torshin, to attend the National Rifle Association conference. They also went into great detail about how Butina wanted to make these connections with Republican officials, influential political leaders.

All of this, Kate, being laid out in court. The most important thing happening just moments ago. Maria Butina pleading guilty to conspiracy against the United States. And, Kate, she could face up to five years in prison. That will be determined at a later sentencing. She's going to be in jail until that sentencing. And after she serves her prison time, whatever it may be, she likely will be deported back to Russia -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Thanks so much, Jessica. I really appreciate it.

Let me get back over to Congressman Himes.

Congressman, you're hearing that, as I was as well. What's your reaction when you hear we have now admitted Russian spy laying out her efforts at the direction of the Russian government to infiltrate and be a conduit between Russia and U.S. political parties, conservative- leaning political groups?

HIMES: Yes, well, very, very interesting. I think very important for the American people to know about and to hear about. Quite apart from the question of collusion. We can come back to collusion if you like. But quite apart from the question of collusion, it's essential that the American people understand that the Russians undertook a massive effort that involved reaching out to the Trump campaign -- and we'll get back to collusion -- involved working apparently with the NRA, involving buying ads on Facebook, involving really fundamentally manipulating the way we as Americans think about our candidates and our politics in a way that was not about us but about them. One of the things this whole Butina thing is going to do and one thing we need to do is make sure every American understands when they look at something on Facebook, and you know, shout out something and promote a particularly explosive tweet or go to an NRA conference or whatever it may be, they may be serving Vladimir Putin's interests. That's a story that really needs to be told.

BOLDUAN: And to the point, and this puts a fine point on what you're just saying, when anyone from the president on down says that it's a hoax that Russia was trying to influence the election, you can see right here a Russian spy has just admitted in court she was trying to conspire against the United States to do just that.

Congressman, I appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

HIMES: Thank you.

[11:49:02] BOLDUAN: We'll be right back.


BOLDUAN: Back to our breaking news. A judge just moments ago accepted Maria Butina's guilty plea admitting before court that she conspired to infiltrate U.S. conservative political groups on behalf of Russia. But also new in court was the plan that she laid out to do just that.

Let's go back to Jessica Schneider with all the detail from inside the courtroom.

Jessica, what is this diplomacy project that she laid out?

SCHNEIDER: Kate, this was remarkable. In addition her guilty plea, prosecutors laid out this intricate conspiracy that they say kicked off in March 2015. They say Maria Butina drafted a policy proposal -- and this is what it was called, the Description of the Diplomacy Project. And in it, Maria Butina detailed how she would be the conduit between Russian officials and important American political figures. It also detailed how Alexander Torshin, the former Russian bank official, gave her $125 (sic) to attend important conferences, mostly Republican political conferences, and in particular, the National Rifle Association conferences. It detailed how Maria Butina held a dinner that was led and hosted by a U.S. citizen that would attempt to draw in American business people and political figures to discuss Russian and U.S. policy.

Of note, this lasted up until 2017, when Maria Butina attended the National Prayer Breakfast and, in it, she met with officials. And she put it this way to Paul Erickson, the American conservative activist, who she said was her boyfriend, but prosecutors say was working with her in the deal. She said this, she said, that she was -- the people she met with at that prayer breakfast were coming to establish a back channel of communication.

So, Kate, all of this spelled out by prosecutors. Maria Butina pleading guilty. And all of this going to show how she helped or hoped to infiltrate organizations at the direction of Russian officials -- Kate?

[11:55:32] BOLDUAN: Pretty remarkable.

Jessica, thank you so much for laying that out.

We will have much more on this as our special coverage is going to continue, next.