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Trump Lashes Out at Cohen, Mueller; Melania Trump's Poll Numbers Dropping; Police Kill French Christmas Market Attacker; Despite Guilty Plea, Trump Claims Investigators "Convinced" Flynn to Lie to Mueller's Team; Alleged Russian Spy Admits to Conspiring Against U.S. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump now says Michael Cohen was just his P.R. guy.

Bang-up job there, by the way.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Defense and denial. President Trump giving his first TV interview after his former fixer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in the big house. Is it possible the president just managed to dig the hole deeper for himself?

Also breaking today, a Russian woman who was once face-to-face with candidate Trump admits to being an agent of the Russian government and gives us one of the most revealing looks yet at one of Moscow's operations to infiltrate American politics.

Plus, did you read it before you posted it? The Department of Homeland Security posts a memo about the border wall, and it's missing a few words, but don't worry, president build wall high.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

While his personal lawyer and fixer is heading to prison, President Trump is trying to shift the blame and spin the story, claiming he did not direct Michael Cohen to break the law, which is, of course, a complete contradiction with assertions made by the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, which stated directly in court that the illegal hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and to Karen McDougal were done in coordination with and at the direction of President Trump.

Mr. Trump also today questioning if the McDougal payment was ever even made, and, technically, the president might be correct, in that, while McDougal was paid for her silence by "The National Enquirer" parent company, AMI, there's not yet any evidence that Mr. Trump or his organization paid them back. "The Wall Street Journal" has even reported that AMI CEO David Pecker

called off the reimbursement deal on the advice of his lawyer, worried that it would be viewed as an in-kind campaign contribution.

"The Journal" also reporting Pecker asked Cohen to tear up that reimbursement agreement, but Cohen did not do so, and federal agents found it when they raided his office.

President Trump is, however, on tape discussing that payment with Michael Cohen. Beyond that spin, there were some odd and false claims made by the president today, such as that Cohen -- quote -- "pled to two campaign charges which were not criminal" -- unquote, which is a Bizarro World interpretation, given that Cohen is going to prison for those criminal charges and others.

The president also complained today that those two felony counts were simply added to Cohen's docket embarrass him, the president.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House.

Jeff, President Trump seems to be throwing out all the defense options and seeing what sticks.


He also has, of course, repeatedly referred to all these legal charges against him as a witch-hunt, but, today, he took a slightly different approach, saying it was all part of a plan to embarrass him. Now, as for Michael Cohen, his longtime fixer and lawyer, the president also diminished him as a low-level aide and said this: "In retrospect, I maybe shouldn't have hired him."


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me tell you. I never directed him to do anything wrong.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump speaking out today against his longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, saying the charges that led to Cohen's three-year prison sentence were intended to embarrass the president.

TRUMP: Because 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 mow. They put those two charges on to embarrass me.

ZELENY: But the president's view spelled out in a flurry of tweets and an interview with FOX News is at odd with the facts. He insisted that the campaign finance charges against Cohen related to the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal weren't criminal.

TRUMP: Michael Cohen pled guilty to something that is not even a crime. ZELENY: But that's not true. The charges are criminal and part of

the reason Cohen received a prison sentence of three years, along with tax evasion, bank fraud, and lying to Congress.

The president increasingly isolated, as friends turn on him, including "National Enquirer" publisher David Pecker, who accepted immunity from federal prosecutors about the hush money payments, but the president also they to muddy the waters on the front.


TRUMP: 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 the tabloid.

ZELENY: Though it appears to be true Trump didn't American Media, Inc., federal prosecutors Trump directed the company to pay McDougal to keep her from telling her story about an alleged affair during the 2016 campaign.

The president had kinder words for another one-time friend, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, fired by Trump and now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

While Trump said Flynn didn't lie.


TRUMP: I have a feeling that maybe he didn't. He's a tougher kind of a guy than Cohen, but they took a general that they said didn't lie, and they convinced him he did lie, and he made some kind of a deal.

ZELENY: That's precisely what Flynn pleaded guilty to, lying to the FBI, and is now awaiting sentencing.


ZELENY: Now, that sentencing is scheduled for next week. It's unclear what that sentence will be. But the special counsel's office has recommended no jail time, no prison time for Michael Flynn because of his "special assistance" in the Russia investigation.

So, Jake, that's one of the many questions here at White House. What exactly what was that special assistance Michael Flynn gave? Perhaps next week, we will find out.

TAPPER: Perhaps. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

The president now says he's not even sure he ever made that payment to American Media, Inc., the parent company of "The National Enquirer." Put aside all the court documents that lay out how the president directed Cohen to make the $150,000 payment. Trump is also on tape with Cohen talking about it.

Take a listen.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

COHEN: ... funding. Yes. And it's all the stuff.


TAPPER: Now, maybe he didn't pay them, as he was supposed to, according to original plan, but the plan is laid out there, and David Pecker apparently held up his end of the deal.

We also know the prosecutor description of an August 2015 meeting is similar to the meeting first reported on by "The Wall Street Journal." Trump met with Pecker and Cohen to discuss how they would handle any negative stories.

Kaitlan, you know, the president seems to be hanging his hat on the fact that they never paid Pecker, but I don't know that that really matters.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's toeing the line, and this is what we have seen President Trump do a lot of the times. He is saying, we didn't make that payment, but he's not saying, we didn't make that payment because David Pecker backed out of it, according to this reporting from "The Wall Street Journal," because he was advised by his legal counsel that it could be seen as an in-kind campaign contribution.

So the president doesn't go there in the interview. He just says, we didn't pay them. He didn't say that his lawyer essentially set it up for them to pay them this money for buying the rights to this woman's story, so she wouldn't go public with that story or couldn't go public with that story alleging that she had an affair with the president.

He's toeing the line. That's also what we have seen from him on Twitter this morning, kind of trying to give a little insight into his legal strategy here by saying I didn't -- or he's not disputing that he directed Michael Cohen to make these payments to the women. He is saying, I didn't direct him to do anything illegal while he was doing it.

TAPPER: David, in the non -- in the non-prosecution agreement with AMI, it says -- quote -- "The agreement also acknowledges AMI's agreement to provide cooperation in the future."

We just heard Cohen reference all the stuff in the tape. It's not difficult to imagine that there's more beyond McDougal and Stormy Daniels, so it's possible that this is not the end of the AMI part of this.


To be granular on this, right, I think a lot of this turns on what the president's intent is, right? What can they prove? What did the president intend here? Did he intend to violate campaign finance laws? Did he intend -- a lot of that is going to turn on that?

And then secondly to go to 100,000 feet, does it matter, right, and why does it matter? Because it matters because, are they going to try to prosecute the president?

Probably not. Does it matter? We heard Jerry Nadler, the chairman, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, say, while this probably is something that's impeachable, I doubt we will impeach him for it.

TAPPER: Right.

URBAN: We should care about it for a lot of reasons on the criminal side, but on the political side, doesn't seem like that no matter what happens it's going to tilt the balance in Jerry Nadler's mind at least.

TAPPER: What do you think? Does it matter, from the 10,000-foot view? Does it matter for moral reasons?


URBAN: I'm not saying there's not that. But I'm saying talking about criminal and political.


TAPPER: I know there are other ones.



No, I think, as I often say, I think the moral part is a given, but I also think it's something that people understood when they voted for him, so that's part of the equation.

Look, first off, I would like to say the president should just have a legal strategy and enact it, and not talk about it in public. I'm not a lawyer, but he takes bad legal advice from a lot of people, so I feel like mine might be better than some.

I am with him, I think, the president, on this part of it, which is, do I think that they would be going hard after Cohen on rather small FEC violations of 100,000-ish dollars if they couldn't use that to get to Trump? No, I don't think they would. These things are hard to stick, as we saw with John Edwards.


HAM: They are often settled well fines, as I think they probably should be.

It's not that I don't think Cohen has stuff to answer for, which is why he made this deal, but I do think that that's why we're talking about those things. It doesn't matter how trashy an FEC violation is. It's still an FEC violation.

TAPPER: Robby, you were Hillary Clinton's campaign manager. Federal prosecutors laid out yesterday -- quote -- "AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment to suppress the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election."


That is the difference in the story from the John Edwards story.

Do you think that this would have made a difference? And the reason I ask is because this is after the "Access Hollywood" tape dropped that all this happened. So the American people did have some idea, and, you know, these are consensual relationships, as opposed to what's described on the "Access Hollywood" tape.


And I think it speaks to the overall moral issue that sometimes gets lost in the details. Look, I don't like to call "The Enquirer" a media organization, but, in theory, you have a media organization being paid by a presidential campaign to buy someone's story and suppress it.

Of course I think that would have made a difference if people would have known that. Is it going to change the outcome of the election? Who knows? But I will say the number of things that we're asking did it make a difference continue to pile up.

Did leaking e-mails make a difference? Did James Comey make a difference? Now we learn that they are literally paying news organizations to suppress stories. Did that make a difference?

TAPPER: No, but what about the affair itself, the alleged affair itself, would that have made a difference? Because that's what they were hiding.

MOOK: No, what I'm arguing would have made a difference was knowing that this campaign's practice was to pay an organization to buy stories away, to make them go away.

TAPPER: Oh, the catch and kill.

MOOK: Yes, I think that absolutely people would have been alarmed by that.


COLLINS: We're asking the question, because clearly President Trump thought it would have made a difference, because, otherwise, why would they have done this?


HAM: Except, it was also his M.O. forever.


URBAN: Allegedly, this is what the David -- catch and kill stories have been going on with Trump for years, not just about that, but bad business stories and bad -- "The National Enquirer" had been doing it for years and years. It was a practice.

TAPPER: I want you to take a listen, President Trump explaining why he hired Michael Cohen to work for him to begin with.

This is question number six, if we could run that tape, President Trump talking today about Michael Cohen, why he hired him.


TRUMP: Very low-level work. He did more public relations than he did law. But he did -- so, if you would see him on television, he was OK on television.

But years ago, many years, like 12, 13 years ago, he did me a favor. He was on a committee, and he was so responsive and so good. And I said, he's a nice guy. He was on a committee.

It was a condominium committee many years ago. And he was a very big supporter of mine on that committee.


TAPPER: He was higher-level than that.

COLLINS: Well, also, the president says he was hired because of what he did for him in Trump Tower. That was when I believe they were trying to take his name off of Trump Tower. And Michael Cohen helped with that.

But, yes, also it's not even just that Michael Cohen was higher than that, someone who was very close to the president, very close to his family. But the president made that remark during that interview that was taped around lunchtime. A few hours earlier, he was tweeting that all of this happened just because he had been taking the advice of his counsel, who was Michael Cohen.

TAPPER: Right.


COLLINS: Then he's saying, he didn't do legal work, he just did P.R. stuff, so that those to contradict each other.

So you can see why the president is kind of spitballing here and trying to say whatever he can. And that's what we have seen his argument shift so much over the last few months, going from, I didn't know about these payments, to he did know about them, to they weren't campaign finance violations, but if they were, it's Michael Cohen's fault because he was acting as my attorney. URBAN: Look, so Michael Cohen was a guy who was paid X amount as a salary, right, inside Trump Tower, and why -- on the come, right?

If you sold a condominium, if you -- if you did this, if you did that, and so he's a hustler, he's a hustler. And the president incentivized him.

And I don't necessarily know if he was always running the Trump Organization, but he was a guy who was a grinder.

COLLINS: Can I note one small thing? His office is on the same floor as President Trump's in Trump Tower.


HAM: You're never more important and tremendous than while you're working for Trump, and then never more small and insignificant once you have left.

TAPPER: Nice point.

Everyone, stick around.

So President Trump claims he never directed Michael Cohen to make those hush money payments. And now he says Michael Flynn did not lie to the FBI. What has changed between December of last year and today?

Then, by the numbers -- first lady Melania Trump becoming more like her husband. We will show you how.


[16:17:59] TAPPER: We have some breaking news in our world lead. Police have killed the gunman responsible for a terrorist attack on a French Christmas market earlier this week. Three people were killed, 13 others injured after the gunman opened fire on Tuesday.

CNN's Ben Wedeman joins me now live.

And, Ben, what do we know about this police operation to track down the attacker who was at large?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that operation went on for 49 hours. An hour ago three policemen not far from Strasbourg, not from the neighborhood where the gunman Cherif Chekatt grew up, encountered an individual who acted strangely, that individual opened fire on the police and the police returned fire and killed him. This ends a manhunt that involved security forces. Several thousand here in France but also in Germany which is very near to Strasbourg as well as in Switzerland. This individual, of course, had a long criminal record but no record of involvement in terrorism -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ben Wedeman in Paris for us, thank you so much.

On the politics lead now, President Trump on a roll today, trying to clear his name. You heard him call out his former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, and then he moved on to discuss his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying this today in his interview with Fox.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They took a general who said they didn't lie and they convinced him he did lie, and he made some kind of a deal, and now they are recommending no time, you know why? Because they are embarrassed that they got caught.


TAPPER: Embarrass that had they got caught. I'm assuming that's not how you see it, Robby?

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, not at all. And, again, he's twisting this around, trying to make it confusing. I'm fascinated to see what comes out next week because it sounds like --

TAPPER: With the Flynn.

MOOK: Exactly. What did he help them with? I don't know how much we'll learn, but it's -- he's so central to this question of whether the Russians were offering something, right, saying get rid of these sanctions and we'll do "X," or maybe they had something on Flynn, we don't know.

[16:20:02] But I think this is a real critical piece. I'm really interested to see what they have next week.

TAPPER: It really is just curious. We don't know what he lied about and we don't why he lied. A national security adviser, an incoming national security adviser having a phone call with the Russian ambassador is certainly allowed to do that, allowed to discuss sanctions and allowed to discuss what he hopes for foreign policy in a few weeks.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CONSERVATIVE COLUMNIST: Yes, we may know more about it next week, not only about what Flynn did and knew and why he lied and also about how the FBI handled it. The judge has asked specifically for a punch of, perhaps under seal, how he was interviewed and how they went about doing that. I don't know what will come of that or what the reason is for asking that. Flynn's lawyers said they were a little aggressive on then.

And just to be the weird over the libertarian at the table, I don't think it should be a crime to lie to federal law enforcement. So --

TAPPER: You go?

HAM: They can lie to you. You can lie to them.

TAPPER: That's a whole conversation.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Curiouser and curiouser. TAPPER: The president earlier today also suggested that Flynn and

Cohen made these deals with the FBI, with the Justice Department out of fear. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, the FBI said Michael Flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn't lie, and Mueller said, well, maybe he did, and -- and now they are all having a big dispute. So I think that's a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation. That's -- that's an honor for a lot of terrific people.


HAM: Didn't he say he was firing him because --

TAPPER: He said he was firing him for lying.

URBAN: So, I don't know who he lied to internally. So, that can be --

TAPPER: Pence for one.

URBAN: But Mary Katharine's earlier point, right, the judge asked for some specific underlying documents dealing with General Flynn so we'll see to the president's point. You know, maybe there's a question of whether or not General Flynn actually did lie and the judge wants to see that. The judge wants to see if he will allow him to plead.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think if Michael Flynn didn't lie, he would have brought that up, by the way, and not pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. He also lied to the Vice President Mike Pence about this, and today on Twitter, President Trump was essentially trying to argue against the special counsel and the FBI by saying they try to get people to lie about small misstatements and then they charge them with that. Saying you did not discuss sanctions with a Russian official when you did discuss sanctions is not a misstatement that someone would say. If you said you didn't have that during a phone call and you did, that's a big lie.

URBAN: Jake's point, you're allowed to do that, so why lie about it? That doesn't make any sense.

COLLINS: That's a question for Michael Flynn.


COLLINS: That's a question for Michael Flynn, and we're now seeing the president trying to the argument that they are trying to get people with small misstatements, that if they got the weather wrong, that they're going to charge them with lying.

TAPPER: Yes, and this isn't the weather, this is an important thing. Sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election, and also I think what's insignificant is President Trump fired Michael Flynn. URBAN: Right.

TAPPER: This isn't somebody that he stuck by. This is somebody fired for lying to Pence if no one else.

MOOK: Right, exactly. Let's keep in mind. This is a guy who fired James Comey because of how he claimed James Comey treated Hillary Clinton. But at the time James Comey was going after Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump was applauding him on. So, this changes all the time. I'm sure he's making it on the fly.

He's not getting his own legal advice. I think this is his own legal advice in his head, but, yeah, look, it will be -- I think we know so much less than we even think we do. I think a lot is going to come out. Let's remember Flynn was at the Republican Convention. We know Kislyak was there. We know Sessions lied to the Senate about meeting with Kislyak. I think a lot is going on that we haven't heard about yet.


URBAN: Yes, remember, Robby, the convention -- Kislyak and Sessions -- Kislyak -- Sessions shook his hand hat a reception line at a Heritage Foundation reception. That's not had a meeting where they are sitting down. That's a handshake in a receiving line.

MOOK: Yes, but that's what we know. This is my point.

URBAN: I think that's it. I think that's pretty much it.

MOOK: Every step in this investigation, more keeps coming out. It's not less, and so I think there's a lot more.

URBAN: We'll see.

TAPPER: Excited to find out more.

Coming up, she pleaded guilty and now we're learning who the target was for this alleged Russian spy.

Stay with us.


[16:28:43] TAPPER: Our world lead now. She's young, Russian and loves gun. And today, Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an illegal agent of a foreign government in the United States.

Butina now admits she was acting under orders from Russian government officials when she tried to infiltrate Republican political circles, including the National Rifle Association during the 2016 campaign in hopes of influencing U.S. policy towards Russia.

CNN's Sara Murray joins me now.

And, Sara, we know Butina is still cooperating with prosecutors. What comes next?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it depends on how helpful she is to the government. I mean, she faces anywhere between time served to up to five years in prison. But today, the judge did not set a sentencing date because she's still cooperating.


MURRAY (voice-over): Russian national Maria Butina admitting she conspired to act as an illegal foreign agent, as he pleaded guilty in D.C. federal court today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was satisfied with her lawyers and made the decision voluntarily.

MURRAY: Wearing a green prison jumpsuit and a tattered undershirt beneath it, Butina spoke clearly with a Russian accent as she entered her plea. Butina admitted she acted at the direction of a Russian official who CNN has identified as former Russian banker Aleksandr Torshin while attending American University and failed to notify the U.S. government. As she cooperates with investigators, Butina is providing information about how her boyfriend, Republican operative Paul Erickson, aided her activities in the U.S.