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Alleged Russian Spy Admits to Conspiring Against U.S.; WSJ: Trump Inauguration Spending Under Criminal Investigation. Aired 4:30- 5p ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 16:30   ET


SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 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., and telling investigators about her contacts with Russians.

[16:30:11] MARIA BUTINA, ALLEGED RUSSIAN SPY: Studying law school from Russia.

MURRAY: According to a plea, Butina's plot to build relationships with politically influential Americans and advance Russian interests included attending National Rifle Association meetings and organizing a Russian delegation to attend the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in D.C.


MURRAY: She kicked off her plan around March of 2015, working with Erickson on the, quote, diplomacy project. According to the plea, she proposed getting $125,000 from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and arrange other meetings.

At one 2015 political event, she asked Donald Trump about his views on Russia.

BUTINA: If you would be elected as a president, what will be your foreign politics especially in the relationships with my country?

TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK?

MURRAY: That same year, she invited an NRA delegation to Moscow to build closer ties. Afterwards, she sent Torshin a message saying we will let them express gratitude now. We will put pressure on them quietly later.

Butina also attended the NRA's 2015 annual meeting, meeting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Soon after he announced his bid for president, with Butina in the audience. At a 2016 NRA meeting, Butina and Erickson tried to lay the groundwork

for a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their efforts fell short.

Erickson's role in aiding Butina has been a focus of the investigation. But so far, he has not been charged with any crimes.


MURRAY: Now, the Russian government recently claimed that Butina was being for toured while she was being held in custody, so there was an interesting discussion about her mental health today in court, Jake. Her lawyer has also complained that she's been in solitary confinement, but today in front of the judge, her lawyer says she's doing well mentally. She's allowed out of her cell sometimes at nights and visits with a Russian orthodox minister.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with the panel.

Kaitlan Collins, there's one key line I want to highlight from the court filings today, in a proposal that Butina wrote in March 2015. She claimed after her travels to the U.S. and her attendance an NRA event, quote, Butina stated she laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration.

I mean, this does seem to get at the idea that Russia wanted a relationship with the next administration and wanted an improved relationship and the sanctions lifted.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Which is what the intelligence community has assessed over and over again, and that's why there's been such frustration with the Trump administration when people believe that they are downplaying these Russian efforts to interfere in the election and why it's been such a focus for the White House.

But in the president's mind and what has been described to me by a lot of people, it's hard for him to separate the two because if he -- every time he brings up Russia, everyone is looking at his contacts with Russia, his contacts' contacts with Russia, so they believe that it's a struggle and lose-lose for him and if he brings it up, it's automatically going to trigger those conversations about what people he knew were talking with Russian officials.

TAPPER: And we should point out, it's not just -- she didn't just ask Donald Trump at that event in early 2016, the court documents go on to say, quote, she was introduced to influential members of political party one, that's the Republican Party, one of whom announced his campaign to run for the presidency of the United States shortly thereafter. That was Scott Walker, then the governor of Wisconsin.

So, obviously, she was -- it wasn't just Trump, she was just trying to get to anybody she could get to. DAVID URBAN, TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT 2020 ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER: Look,

what we don't know is what we don't know about her, right in the extent of her importance. Obviously if you're, you know, you're in that role you're going to exaggerate somewhat your own importance I think back to your superiors, so we'll just have to wait and see.

But let's not take our eye off the fact that this administration has hammered Russians with sanctions. They have been arming the Ukrainians and have done -- look in Russia right now. The Russians are not favorable disposed of this administration. This administration has the largest amount -- and a small country called Norway has a gigantic military operation undergoing right on the Russian border.

The fact that the Russians are so upset, they sent two bombers to Venezuela to kind of poke this administration back in the eye.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Except when Trump is in the room with Putin.


MOOK: An important exception, when Trump is in the room with Putin, it's all love and we won't call him out.

And here's the other thing, if we just step back, nothing about this makes sense, OK? You have the National Rifle Association. You have a banker in Russia, a guy running a state bank who by the way has been indicted on money laundering in Spain, who is a life member, and then in Russia --

TAPPER: Life member of the NRA.

MOOK: Of the NRA. And then you have a gun rights organization in Russia, an authoritarian state, OK. Why would you have a gun rights organization in an authoritarian state?

TAPPER: They don't like that.

MOOK: And, by the way, you mentioned Scott Walker. You have David Clark, who's the sheriff in Milwaukee County, he's going on an NRA delegation over to Russia where he's in meetings with Butina.

[16:35:04] None of this makes sense.

URBAN: David Clark is not a high-ranking official.

MOOK: Well, no, no, no, but that's the point. Why would you have a county sheriff in the United States from Wisconsin going over to Russia? None of this makes sense, and the NRA has a ton of questions to answer at this point.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, bottom line, it shows that there are real shenanigans afoot and Russians want to infiltrate and they want to influence and that frankly in this case it looks like it wasn't that hard. This isn't a super sophisticated operation that she was pulling here. She was going to CPAC and like, hey, can we hang out? So, like that's not a great sign and perhaps because she has decided to cooperate, we'll learn more about this and more about (INAUDIBLE) perhaps more sophisticated that's happened.

URBAN: To what end, right? To what end? Like what were the results? We'll find out.

TAPPER: But one thing that I think is definitely true is that with Democrats taking over the House, the NRA is going to be forced to answer some questions.

URBAN: Well, that's true.

TAPPER: Unless they plead the Fifth, because the Republicans have not held a hearing on this, but I can't imagine Democrats won't.

COLLINS: That's what you would presume. I don't think any NRA officials have commented on this yet about what is to come when those Democrats take over, but you would assume that's what they are going to do among a myriad of other things they promised.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We've got some breaking news about President Trump's inauguration. Stick around.


[16:40:43] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: And we have some breaking news just in. "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting the federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump's inaugural committee misspent some of the money it raised from donations. This is part of a criminal probe examining whether some top donors gave money to the inaugural committee in exchange for access to the Trump administration for specific quid pro quos, which could violate federal corruption laws, according to "The Journal".

The investigation partly arises out of material seized in the federal raids of the offices of Michael Cohen, sources tell "The Journal."

Let's talk about this. First of all, we should acknowledge up front, and I'm not excusing anything, but inaugural committees are legendarily sleazy operations. I mean, people -- you try to raise -- they are exempt from all sorts of rules and disclosures. People try to raise as much money as they can from corporations. They are like conventions that way.

MOOK: Well, there's a big problem in politics in general, that you have money moving back --

TAPPER: Right.

MOOK: You know, money moving into these campaigns, including the inaugurations and, you know, it's -- it's hard to say that no, it doesn't have any impact whatsoever. It would not surprise me in the slightest though that this

administration took it so much further. There's no way investigators are actually going after this or charges are going to be filed until they have real documentation of quid pro quo. It sounds like they might have a recording of that.

I would also say that this is the president who gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sheldon Adelson's wife. It's so unclear to me what she might have done to deserve that. So, I would argue there's a lot for sale in this White House and this is probably just a tip of the iceberg.

COLLINS: Sheldon Adelson who was one of the biggest donors.

But what's really interesting is that they say that federal prosecutors have asked Rick Gates, who has cooperated we know after he pled guilty earlier this year in connection with something unrelated to the president but along with Paul Manafort, they asked him because he was the deputy chairman of this inaugural committee. After Paul Manafort left the Trump campaign, he was the one who stayed on, he was Paul Manafort's deputy and he was the one who wasn't well (AUDIO GAP) through the inauguration.

So he's already cooperating. He agreed to cooperate (AUDIO GAPE) he agreed to cooperate once he pleaded earlier this year. So, they are asking him about these expenses and about how these funds were used. Though it's unclear which expenses they are looking at, though, judging from this "Wall Street Journal" report. 9

TAPPER: It says here on "The Journal", the inaugural committee has publicly identified vendors accounting for $61 million of the $103 million that it spent.

COLLINS: A lot of money.

TAPPER: And it has not provided details on those expenses. It also says that a former adviser to Melania Trump, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, there's a recording of her, expressing concern about how the inaugural committee was spending money, according to a person familiar with the Cohen investigation.

URBAN: Look, so Cohen is the gift that keeps on giving, right?

HAM: And keeps recording.

URBAN: For the FBI, right? When they raided his office and they took the things out of the shredder and his safe, you know, that was going to be problemsome. Look works knows what Michael Cohen was trying to sell and on what the half, right? I mean, only Michael Cohen knows that and the FBI is going to take that.

Look, Michael Cohen might have been (AUDIO GAP) pocket some of the difference, right? I mean, we don't know any of it. Don't know any of it.

COLLINS: And this is also when everything was a total mess. Even people who are huge fans of the president, huge supporters, this is a total mess right now because this is when they were going through the transition period before the inauguration happened, trying to figure out who was going to take what position and even people who were around for the darkest days of the campaign say the transition period was one of the worst because it was such a mess. It was so all over the place.

And they say that period it was so chaotic and contributed to a lot of the problems that they are having now with people like Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen.

TAPPER: Now, Mueller has been probing the inaugural committee, and there hasn't been a ton about it in the press, but he did refer a case to the U.S. attorney in Washington.

HAM: Right.

TAPPER: And in August, the U.S. attorney's office in August on that referral obtained a guilt plea, I'm just reading from "The Journal" story, from a Washington consultant, unnamed who admitted he used a U.S. citizen to sever as a straw purchaser so that a prominent Ukraine oligarch could attend the inauguration. The names were never disclosed.

There is -- you talk about we don't know stuff. I don't even remember that story, but he's a Washington consultant, an Ukraine oligarch, straw purchasing, the inaugural committee. There's going to be a lot going on here I think.


HAM: This is not good.

Let me say, like, sort of a regularly scandalous or corrupt sort of operation like an inaugural committee where things can be pretty sleazy. Do I -- like, I hesitate to convict them because there's an investigation going on, but would I be surprised that some bad things went on there? I would not.


[16:45:00] MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is not good. And as you say -- and like a sort of a regularly scandalous or like corrupt sort of operation like an inaugural committee where things can be pretty sleazy.


HAM: Do I -- like I hesitate to convict them because there's an investigation going on. But would I be surprised that some bad things went on, no, I would not.

URBAN: So it's also you know, be interesting to see whether that you know, what the facts are behind that right? Because you pointed out you know, campaign contributions are in one category and the inaugural committee for all it's you know, problems in a complete -- other committee, and so a pile of contributions. So I don't know. You know what did -- what did that person get? They get tickets? What were they trying to buy?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: I mean, you would get -- you would get specific favors or policy changes as a result of giving money to the inaugural committee.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, you know, it's interesting. And all of this are a lot of comparisons to Watergate. And for me one of them is a lot of our modern campaign finance laws came out of Watergate, the slush funds, you know, hushing people up, getting things done, barring things. I wonder if we're entering another period where we got to clean up this mess because the whole purpose of all these laws is to prevent our public officials from being able to just dispose of problems, doing shady things. We don't know who Donald Trump is accountable to. He might be accountable to yet another Russian oligarch we're learning here --

TAPPER: Well, this is a Ukrainian -- this is a Ukrainian --

MOOK: Excuse me. Well --

TAPPER: I'm saying, it's Ukraine oligarch.

MOOK: There's probably Russian money involved. I'm just -- I'm just putting out there.

TAPPER: Perhaps. We don't know.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think back to that day in April when the President was having a meeting with his military leaders talking about Syria, and when reporters came into the room it was the day that they had raided Michael Cohen's home, office, and hotel. And unprompted President Trump went to this outburst about Michael Cohen saying it was a disgrace for them to do that, saying that instead -- you know, they had a warrant but he said they broke into his office.

And I think now we're seeing why President Trump was just so frustrated that day because I asked so many people in the White House what led to that anger because you had not seen anger like that from President Trump in a long time. And they said it's because Michael Cohen knows so much and has so much. And clearly, we're seeing that. And I think a lot of people made the point yesterday after Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years that they didn't think the problems that arose from that were going to end there.

They thought that they would only continue. People are going to look into the Trump Organization, the Trump family. Now, they're looking at the Trump inauguration from these documents a conversation that he had that they found when they raided his office, or home, or hotel whichever --

URBAN: Look, I think some of the fear too is Michael Cohen's a little bit of a loose cannon right?

TAPPER: A little bit.

URBAN: Before all this took place, he was a loose cannon.

COLLINS: Right. But the President hired him.

URBAN: Yes, well, he was operating on his own. A lot of -- and a lot -- and a lot of this I guarantee was freelancing.

COLLINS: Operating on his own, he's getting paid by the President.

MOOK: And we hear them talking about what he's doing. I don't think --

URBAN: Well, we'll see. We'll see. Well, we'll see.

TAPPER: All right, stick around. We're going to take a quick break -- quick break. We'll be right back.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Breaking news, just in, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the Trump inaugural committee and whether top donors gave money in exchange for access to the Trump administration or more. Anything that could violate federal corruption laws according to the Journal.

CNN Legal Analyst Elie Honig joins me on the phone now. And Elie, how legally significant could the story be?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It could be big, Jake. Remember, it looks like a lot of the evidence that it came out of the search warrant that the Southern District of New York did on Michael Cohen office and hotel back in April. And we know that the Southern District got tens of thousands of documents and it looks like this could be based on that. There could be various different potential federal crimes implicated here.

First of all, if money was given in exchange for access to the administration, that's potentially a federal crime. It depends on how specific the understanding was, right? Most people give money to an inaugural, want some sort of favorable consideration, but if there was more of a specific quid pro quo, specific exchange understood, then we could have federal bribery statutes.

Also because the inaugural committee was a non-profit, there could be crimes if some of that money was diverted out for improper uses, non- nonprofit uses in which case they could have tax problems, right, because nonprofits obviously are tax exempt. And if the money was being used for improper political purposes instead of nonprofit purposes, there could be federal tax liability.

TAPPER: All right, Elie, thank you so much. I want to go now to Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Davis O'Brien. She's on the phone. She broke the story along with her colleagues. Rebecca, how significant could this story be when you talk about how they're looking for possible corruption one suggest -- one suspects, you know, given how sleazy inaugural committees just are in general and how rich people give a lot of money and then ultimately in the course of any administration those rich people tend to benefit from one policy or another. How -- I mean, based on your reporting,m how far along the path are they?

REBECCA DAVIS O'BRIEN, REPORTER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, what we've reported is that the investigation is still in its early stages but some people have been asked questions about their donations and about the committee's spending. Obviously, there was a huge amount of money involved here, more than has ever been recorded in the inaugural fund. And there be questions swirling around this committee and how it spent its money and sort of out size costs involved for months now.

And this just shows that some -- you know, some of the materials that were seized in the Cohen raids and the Michael Cohen raids earlier this year could play a role in other investigations.

TAPPER: You mentioned former Melania Trump aide who had left the administration and how she expressed, according to a recording expressed concern to Michael Cohen about how money was being spent. What -- there was about $100, $103 million raised for the inaugural committee. Does the inaugural committee, are they able to account for that money?

[16:55:16] O'BRIEN: Well, one thing is it's important to note that they don't have to account for everything they spent. It's a non- profit but they did disclose in tax filings that were described earlier this year and you know, they disclosed their top five biggest expenses, their biggest contractors. And some of them, there were some eye-popping figures there. You know, $25 million went to one event planning service. Another $25.8 million went to this business founded or started by the former Melania Trump aide.

But this recording is about you know, some that she was evidently expressing to Mr. Cohen about how the inaugural committee was being run and how it was spending money.

TAPPER: Now, you also note in this article -- you refer to this Tennessee developer Frank Haney. He made a $1 million donation to the inaugural committee, the President's inaugural committee. And then in early April, he hired Michael Cohen who at the same time was also Trump's lawyer to help obtain a $5 billion loan from the Energy Department for a nuclear power plant. This is also from a Journal previous reporting. And he's been asked questions about these documents.

I mean, Michael Cohen being in that deal is obviously something that federal investigators and prosecutors will be interested in.

O'BRIEN: Right. I think that another -- there's an element here about Mr. Cohen who you know, obviously, Michael Cohen spent descender a lot of the news recently but he was considered an access point to Donald Trump. We forget that he at one point was a real insider here and Mr. Haney's role or his interactions with Michael Cohen suggest that -- and again he was a big donor to the inaugural fund so --

TAPPER: But are they -- look -- I mean, do you have any sense -- and I know the investigation is early and such, but do you have any sense that this is just something else that they're looking at Michael Cohen about or is this broader than just Michael Cohen because you know, you have here in the story this former Melania Trump aide Miss Wolkoff talking about concerns about how money is being spent. You have Michael Cohen as a -- as a focal point of a rich guy trying to get $5 billion loan and giving a million dollars to the inaugural committee. You sense this is a beyond Michael Cohen or focused just on him?

O'BRIEN: Well, I don't think the focus is necessarily as far as we know on him. He wasn't -- he didn't have an official role in the inaugural but at the time he was close to the White House and during the transition period so it's -- it makes sense that he would be a person that people involved in this inaugural would reach out to. From what we understand it's beyond him. There was the people who are giving big money and the people who were in charge of making expenditures for the inaugural events themselves.

TAPPER: And it sounds like he was keeping a whole lot of documentation about things that people didn't want him to be keeping a documentation about.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I mean, the recordings are you know, these -- the things that were seized from the raid, they keep popping up here and there. Some of them were referred to and the government's sentencing memo. So you know, this is another example of piece of recorded -- you know, a recorded conversation that has become -- since then become potential evidence in a criminal investigation.

TAPPER: Right. Just like similarly the Journal reported, I think it was you, about the American Media Incorporated, the National Enquirer's parent company David Packer and this whole question about whether or not they are hiring of the Playboy Playmate of the Year with whom President Trump allegedly had an affair hiring her and whether or not President Trump was going to pay her back.

And Pecker got advises, this is all from your reporting, that Packer got advice from his lawyer don't do that because then it'll be a campaign expense and then an illegal one at that. And he told Michael Cohen to shred the document and take it from there. What did Michael Cohen do with the document?

OBRIEN: He did not shred that document. It was seized in the raid.

TAPPER: So that's obviously the point here. He was keeping everything. He was recording everything. And so it's not just about payoffs to alleged mistresses but potentially quid pro quos that he was possibly at least according to your story, you're reporting, the Manhattan district -- U.S. Attorney possibly setting up. Oh, he'll give this much money if he can get such-and-such down the road and maybe he is documentation of that.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I think that you know, we don't -- we don't know all the contents that were seized in that raid but it does seem like there are still potential of it you know, investigative threads emerging from that -- from that Cohen investigation.

TAPPER: All right, Rebecca, thank you so much. Excellent reporting. That's Rebecca Davis O'Brien. One of the three reporters that just broke the Wall Street Journal story about the Trump inauguration committee and its spending being under criminal investigation by the feds right now.

You could follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.