Return to Transcripts main page


Former Attorney Michael Cohen Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison; Plea Hearing for Alleged Russian SpyMaria Butina Begins; Three People Missing in West Virginia Mine Found Alive; U.S. Futures Slightly Higher Amid U.S.-China Trade Talks; Time Runs Out for U.S. Lawmakers to Fund Government; Donald Trump Fires Back at Michael Cohen Sentencing; Congress Seeking Interview with Michael Cohen and Other Mueller Witnesses; National Enquirer Publisher Lands Immunity Deal Over Hush Payments; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Let me read you part of what the president wrote in three consecutive tweets this morning. Quote, "I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law," the president declares, claiming that, quote, "many charges" to which Cohen pleaded guilty are, quote, "unrelated to me."

The president further claims that Cohen's crimes that are, point of fact, all related to the president's campaign finance violations. The president says they are not crimes at all this morning.

Needless to say there is a lot to unpack. Let's get straight to the White House. Abby Phillip joins us.

So Jeff Zeleny had some really interesting reporting yesterday, and the president sort of fuming behind the scenes and publicly -- privately, rather, calling Cohen a liar. Publicly now he's going after him and going after the facts, going after the law in saying this is not even a crime at all. Walk us through the thinking of the president and the White House why he did this publicly this morning.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Poppy. The silence from President Trump only lasted about 20 hours here. Now he is really having his say on this issue. And as you pointed out, he's making a lot of claims in these tweets. So let me just go through them. In three consecutive tweets, he starts by saying, I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He says he was a lawyer and was supposed to know the law. It's called advice of counsel.

The president then continues to say that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws. Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he pled guilty to two campaign charges that were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis. The president then adds that those charges were just agreed to him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence.

Poppy, there is a lot going on here, but let's start with the very beginning, which is that the president is not even at -- he's not even saying now that he didn't direct Michael Cohen to make these payments. He's just saying he didn't direct Michael Cohen to break the law.

The problem, though, is that prosecutors believe that the law was broken. There were campaign finance violations. There was a scheme on the part of Michael Cohen and at the direction of President Trump, according to prosecutors, to pay these women. One of them through a corporation, AMI, the "National Enquirer," and another one through Michael Cohen in order to silence them during the campaign. But President Trump here, we had heard from our sources yesterday that he was seething inside the White House.

He was silent for now. He's clearly seething in public now about his lawyer who has now turned on him, calling Michael Cohen a liar in private and now in public. But clearly the court filings really disagree with what President Trump is trying to say here in these tweets. And clearly there is also more to come. This is not over at all -- Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Court filings by a district attorney appointed by this president in the Southern District here in New York, which also say that the president admits to a lie because in April he said he knew nothing about these payments.

HARLOW: That's right.

SCIUTTO: On camera he said.


SCIUTTO: And now of course that's been proven otherwise.

There is a lot of news. Our colleague Kara Scannell joins us now with the fallout from the Cohen sentence yesterday. And again, these tweets are important, but we got to remind folks that yesterday the president's longtime lawyer and fixer was sentenced to three years in prison.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's right. I mean, that's a long amount of time considering that he was facing four to five years and had even the special counsel's office step forward and say he cooperated with us to the core issues at our investigation which is Russian interference.

SCIUTTO: And now he's going to go to the Hill.

SCANNELL: And now he's going to go to the Hill, right. I mean, we heard yesterday from Senator Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intel Committee saying --

HARLOW: A Republican.

SCANNELL: A Republican. Exactly.

HARLOW: Yes. SCANNELL: Saying he wants to hear from Michael Cohen. Adam Schiff,

who's going to be the incoming chair of the House committee, a Democrat, saying that he's already in touch with Cohen's lawyer to arrange this. And yesterday even in court, Cohen's attorney Guy Petrillo said Cohen is prepared to do this. He is prepared to continue his cooperation in particular talking to the congressional committees.

HARLOW: It's very important. On top of that, there is another big cooperator with the government on this one, and that is AMI, which is of course the parent company of the "National Enquirer." David Pecker ran the "National Enquirer." Overly overtly friendly to the president up until a point and now a flip?

SCANNELL: That's right. I mean, we knew that David Pecker had been given immunity to testify in this investigation of Michael Cohen. What we learned yesterday is even more revealing because we learned that AMI, his company, entered into what's called a non-prosecution agreement. And that means it's going to cooperate. And in this cooperation agreement, they admitted that the purpose of these payments was to influence the election.

HARLOW: Meaning the Karen McDougal story to the "National Enquirer," pay her $150,000, it goes away.

SCANNELL: Right, which is right before the election. And so they're admitting now in court papers that this was done not for Trump's personal family situation, not to not embarrass him, but for the purpose of influencing the election.

[09:05:05] So that is now in effect a second witness. And another key point in this is that this cooperation agreement, it says in there that they are required to cooperate for three years or until all prosecutions arising out of this conduct are final. So that leaves it open that this investigation is not over.


SCANNELL: And that now, in effect, prosecutors have all of the documents, all the testimony, all the access to AMI, as well as what Michael Cohen is offering up. So it's certainly -- I think is a big revelation that we learned yesterday.

SCIUTTO: It's a great way to characterize it because the president focusing his ire and his allies on Cohen calling him a liar. But AMI is a second witness to this, right. To that material question that these payments were made to affect the election because they wanted to bury the story so close to the election. It's a great point.

Kara, thank you very much.

SCANNELL: Thank you.

HARLOW: Joining us now, a very important voice this morning. We need our legal analysts on this, former federal prosecutor Shan Wu. Good morning, Shan. Pose a question for you. Should we just go

ahead, though, and play the tape of the president and Michael Cohen? This is September 2016 discussing what would then be an actual payment to silence the story of Karen McDougal, former Playboy Playmate who alleged an affair with the president. Here is the salient -- the really important part of this discussion. Let's listen.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP PERSONAL LAWYER: Correct. So I'm all over that. And I spoke to Alan about it. When it comes time for the financing, which will be --


COHEN: We'll have to pay something.

TRUMP: So pay with cash?

COHEN: No, no, no, no. I got -- no, no, no.

TRUMP: Check?


SCIUTTO: A key part there is that the president even getting down to the nitty-gritty of how the payments are going to be made, saying pay by cash, not by check. In effect you'd imagine so there's no paper trail.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: And just, Shan, leading into that part of the conversation there, when this conversation began earlier on the tape, the president says, quote, "get rid of this." And then he goes on to say in two weeks, it's fine. And this is right before the election.

Tie all the strings together for us this morning with what the president is arguing.

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. That particular statement that you focused on, Poppy, goes directly in contradiction of what the president is trying to put forth as his defense. Myself and others have been saying for a while that we have been expecting this advice of counsel defense, which is specifically what he's tweeting is that my lawyer told me this was OK to do. So blame him, don't blame me.

So the problem for the president's defense there is that the element here is that it's hiding the contribution with the intent to influence the election. Requirement isn't that your lawyer has not told you it's illegal and you did it anyway. It's trying to influence the election. And the timing from that tape, it's obvious he's very aware of what's happening in two weeks and they're obviously discussing something to influence the election. That's what the problem is for him right now. And it's telling that

he has not yet, and his legal team has not up until this point advanced the advice of counsel defense. That tells us one of two things, one, he's not talking to his legal team possibly. Two, they don't like this defense. They know it's going to be easily beaten down by the prosecution and by Cohen.

SCIUTTO: So regardless of the punitive defense that the president is putting out, the fact is the Southern District of New York believes there is, you know, substance behind these charges, and they are sending someone to prison for it. And you got Michael Cohen testifying to it and you have AMI in effect as a second witness.

Does this mean that this president is likely to be indicted on this charge when he leaves office?

WU: Well, my opinion is there is enough to indict him there. They have accused him of participating in this. I think the question of whether they would indict him when he leaves office to some extent still would be a political question at that time. I mean, if he were to resign or be impeached while he's in office, I think there won't be much energy behind pursuing him afterwards.

If he's not or if they go rather, you know, innovative route of maybe filing something under seal, that's a possibility. But I think the primary focus here is this serious of an accusation by the Justice Department corroborated by so many people, by AMI, by Cohen, whether or not that's going to end up in that political realm of the impeachment, because substantively the elements are certainly there for the crime.

HARLOW: Shan, part of what the president wrote in these three tweets this morning is, quote, "This was not campaign finance." Well, it's not really up to him to decide. I wonder what you think, you know, would ultimately be decided on a legal basis there because obviously the president's team has pointed back to the Edwards case.


HARLOW: And, yes, you know, Edwards was not found guilty on that in those payoffs. But the time frame, as you pointed out earlier this week I think, is so different. That was not weeks before the election and Edwards isn't --

SCIUTTO: A year before --

HARLOW: Didn't become president.

[09:10:01] WU: That's right. Those are really important distinctions to make, the timing of Edwards was very different. There is nothing on tape saying, gosh, in two weeks, you know, this will be OK. But I love the Edwards comparison because what is often overlooked is, that was not a defense to Edwards being charged.

Edwards was indicted and had to go on trial. They beat it at trial with that defense. That's totally different than Trump and his team trying to argue this shouldn't even be a charge right now. There's no question that was a charge and he beat it at trial. So it's very different.

SCIUTTO: Shan Wu, thanks very much.

Listen, it's a story we're going to keep on top of. Let's discuss the political implications with Errol Louis, CNN political commentator, Rachel Bade, CNN political analyst.

Errol, if I could begin with you here. You know, it's interesting because up until this morning the argument, in effect then that Cohen is a liar. Don't listen to what he's saying. But now the president is making a lawyerly argument here. Right? Advice of counsel. And I wonder if that indicates to you that he's taking this more seriously.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he's making some lawyerly sounds. I mean, there is no legal coherence to what he's saying there, right, because there's a whole ton of evidence. I mean, there is -- you know, you played some of it. There is audio evidence. There is travel documents. There is bank fraud on top of all of this stuff because Michael Cohen was foolish enough to try and lie to the bank to get the home equity line of credit to pay off the mistress.

You know, on and on and on. So, look, I think what's going to happen is the president is going to discover that if he's focusing on a legal defense, as poor as this is, he's kind of missing the point because I think this is ultimately going to be tried in the court of politics, rather than in a courtroom.


LOUIS: Something may happen somewhere down the road.

HARLOW: Right.

LOUIS: But between now and 2020, this is going to be a political question.

HARLOW: So to that point, and you're completely right, Rachel, I'm not convinced one iota that this changes anything politically for the president among his supporters.

RACHEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, he can say all day that this wasn't campaign finance. Look, Democrats on the Hill, they are absolutely looking at Michael Cohen right now and they are seeing a star witness. This is a guy who has been close with the president for years. They say he knows where the bodies are buried. He knows the president personally. They know -- he knows financial things about him and his political motivations. And they are looking at Michael Cohen, talking about bringing him in already.

I do think it's going to be interesting to see sort of do the House Democrats go after what we're seeing right now in the news, which is this whole thing about payments and hush payments and campaign finance. You know, some of the Dems feel that they shouldn't touch that issue, that they should only focus on Russia and focus on things that will, you know, in some way affect voters back home. And there is a really divide right now in the Republican -- the Democratic Party up on the Hill about how far they should dig into these payments.

And I think that that's particular interesting because here you have a solid evidence of prosecutors, you know, bringing not only Cohen forth but also this AMI deal, once again corroborating the fact that the president and the campaign knew about this and that it was a real problem.

SCIUTTO: Right. OK, Rachel. Let's talk about Russia, though, because there was a phrase in the special counsel office's testimony in Cohen's court hearing yesterday that strikes me should concern the president. They said Cohen has provided their office, the special counsel's office, with credible and reliable information about core Russia related issues under investigation. That seems to focus on things other than hush money payments to women. How concerning should that be for the president?

BADE: Extremely concerning. I mean, clearly his legal exposure here is growing. It's not shrinking contrary to what the White House is claiming right now. I mean, Cohen, he knew about these talks with Russia when it came to Trump's business ties. And him trying to build a Moscow tower, Trump Tower. And that's leading into the presidential campaign.

HARLOW: Right.

BADE: So this is going to be something that Hill prosecutors are going to -- or Hill investigators are going to want to talk to him about. But again it goes to the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and it's going to be a big issue for him.

HARLOW: Yes. And by the way, Errol Louis, it's not just Democrats on the Hill. This is not just Adam Schiff or Jerry Nadler. This is Richard Burr.

LOUIS: Sure.

HARLOW: Republican, conservative Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying, yes, we would want to talk to Michael Cohen again. And guess what? All those questions would not just be about hush money payments over Karen McDougal.

LOUIS: That's right.

HARLOW: You have a lot of critical Russia-tied things. Right?

LOUIS: It get to be -- yes. It gets to be a much broader, a much more intense kind of questioning. And we should keep in mind that it's not really just about the president's base. The president is going to do fine in Alabama no matter what. He's going to do fine in Mississippi no matter what. But we know that because of the electoral college map, he won because of 40,000 or 50,000 sort of undecided voters in some of the industrial states in the Midwest.

They may change their mind when it becomes clear that, again, whether or not there is actually somebody who comes in with a subpoena or an indictment into the White House, the reality is that if it's proven in the minds of most people that the president has been a party to breaking the law, that starts to change.



LOUIS: In politics --

HARLOW: When I spent time reporting, you know, few months ago through those Rustbelt states, the president's ardent supporters, a number of them told me, nothing has been proven yet, nothing has been proven yet, I'm standing --


HARLOW: By his side, but if he did this, but if he broke the law, that would --

SCIUTTO: Right --

HARLOW: Change things for me.

SCIUTTO: And listen in the midterms, you saw concerning signs for this president in those states, both in state-wide elections, but also in the congressional elections even before a concrete Mueller finding --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Of wavering support there. Errol Louis, Rachel Brade(ph) --

HARLOW: Thank you both --

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much.

HARLOW: Minutes away from the plea hearing for the accused Russian spy Maria Butina. Federal prosecutors say she infiltrated conservative groups, including the NRA, this ahead of the 2016 election.

SCIUTTO: Plus, three people trapped in a West Virginia mine for days, they're found alive, you see them there. What were they doing there in the first place? Really, an extraordinary story.


[09:20:00] HARLOW: So a little over an hour from now, an alleged Russian spy who the Fed say infiltrated conservative groups including the NRA with the sole intent of furthering Moscow's interest ahead of the 2016 election. But she is due to plead guilty to conspiracy.

SCIUTTO: Maria Butina is said to be cooperating now to a point with prosecutors who want information on Americans and Russian officials she might have been working with. Cnn's Jessica Schneider is at the D.C. Federal Courthouse. So for folks at home, tell us how her participation fits into the larger story here.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim and Poppy, a tantalizing, intriguing story for sure. You know, 29-year-old Maria Butina, she came here to Washington portraying herself as this graduate student who had started a gun rights group in Russia, but prosecutors say that she was actually here working at the direction of a former Russian bank official Aleksandr Torshin to really infiltrate conservative political groups like the National Rifle Association.

Well, this morning, all of that has changed. Maria Butina is expected to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy. And what's remarkable here is that she has, in fact, been working with prosecutors, those same prosecutors who says that she worked here in the United States with American conservative activist Paul Erickson who Butina also says is her boyfriend, to really establish those communications, those unofficial back channels to U.S. political figures all for the benefit of the Russian federation.

And that's really what's key here, is that now prosecutors have been talking to Butina, perhaps she's been able to shed some light as to how exactly Russia has tried to infiltrate political organizations, and of course affect the 2016 election, meddling and interfering with the election itself.

You know, Maria Butina was actually at a political event way back in 2015, asking then candidate Donald Trump a question about how exactly he'd interact with Russia if elected president. So all of this significant, Maria Butina expected to plead guilty this morning at a hearing at 10:30 this morning.

And of course this really caps off what has been a remarkable week in the Russia investigation. We saw the sentencing of Michael Cohen yesterday in New York to three years. Also tomorrow, we're expecting a filing from prosecutors, they will be replying with a sentencing memo, suggesting what kind of sentence Michael Flynn could receive.

Of course, Michael Flynn and his lawyers as well as the special counsel's team suggesting no prison time here. So really a remarkable week, Jim and Poppy, in the Russia investigation, expecting Maria Butina's plea hearing at 10:30 this morning. Guys?

SCIUTTO: Yes, and you know what's interesting, when she was looking for help on the U.S. side of people interested, she found folks in the U.S. who were --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Interested in working and talking with her. Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Thank you --

SCIUTTO: After being stranded underground for more than 100 hours, it's really a remarkable rescue story. Three people who went missing in a West Virginia mine, they're rescued. We're going to have that story. HARLOW: We're also minutes away from the opening bell on Wall Street.

Take a look, futures pointing higher this morning, a lot of green there. Markets reacting to a little bit of investor optimism about U.S.-China trade talks. And also frankly in the U.K., Theresa May surviving that no confidence vote and what this means for the future of Brexit, we'll be on top of all of it.


HARLOW: Three people trapped in an abandoned mine in West Virginia, abandoned coal mine for days are rescued. Look at this.

The sheriff says it's a miracle they were found alive after all that time. Cnn correspondent Polo Sandoval has been following the story, joins us with the latest. First of all, remarkable rescue --


SCIUTTO: Do we know what brought them down there?

SANDOVAL: Well, you know, Jim, just as the governor of West Virginia said that he was already preparing for a tragic end in all this. It did not look good, and then finally yesterday contact was made, essentially, there was some trespassing that took place, to answer your question, Jim.

Authorities saying that yesterday, they were finally able to make contact, they were able to reach these three individuals from West Virginia. They were initially -- the search started after the SUV that they were believed to have been using was found at the entrance to that mine, and then finally authorities making contact with them.

This was in Clear Lake, West Virginia. I want you to hear directly from Kayla Williams and Cody Beverly; two of the three people who were rescued, but how they were able to stay alive for almost four days.


CODY BEVERLY, MINE WORKER: We drank mine water, we had --


BEVERLY: No food, we just found a stream in the mine to start drinking, and hoping and praying to God that it was not contaminated.


SANDOVAL: OK, just heard from Williams and Beverly as they spoke to "Abc's" "Good Morning America" this morning. For now, it's about celebrating this however. Authorities making it clear that charges are very possible in the situation. This is the second trespassing incident at this abandoned mine here.

Of course, the question is what led them there to begin with? That's something --

SCIUTTO: Right --

SANDOVAL: That we're looking into, but authorities did say, as the sheriff said today, we'll celebrate, tomorrow though somebody will be held accountable, potentially, some of the survivors of this.

SCIUTTO: We're glad they're out safe, Polo --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much.

HARLOW: Thanks --

SANDOVAL: Thanks, Jim, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: One word to describe spending talks on the Hill could be frozen. We're just days away from a potential partial shutdown, a few days before Christmas, and all eyes are on how House Republicans plan to move forward. What isn't moving forward for Democrats, the $5 billion that the president wants for his border wall.