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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; Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina to Plead Guilty. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:05] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. I'm Jim Sciutto here in New York.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. We're glad you're with us. And we are minutes away from another expected guilty plea, revealing another murky sub-layer of the 2016 election.


HARLOW: An alleged Russian spy who's supposedly tried to infiltrate conservative groups on the Kremlin's behalf appeared today in federal court in Washington in just about an hour. Much more on that ahead.

SCIUTTO: We begin with a presidential rebuttal, attempted rebuttal to the courtroom confessions of his former longtime fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen. Almost 24 hours after Cohen told a judge that, quote, "blind loyalty" led him to cover up the president's, quote, "dirty deeds," Mr. Trump himself declared, "I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.

"Cohen is guilty on many charges unrelated to me," the president writes, but then falsely claims that Cohen's campaign finance offenses which do relate to him are not crimes at all. Those offenses stem from six-figure payoffs to women whose claims that they had affairs with Trump could have impacted the presidential campaign. Those payments coming just weeks before the election.

Prosecutors do not just have Cohen's word that the future president was involved. They also have among other things audio recording of Trump and Cohen speaking about buying off Karen McDougal's story from the "National Enquirer." Have a listen.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP PERSONAL LAWYER: Correct. So I'm all over that. And I spoke to Allen 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?


HARLOW: All right. Let's get to Kaitlan Collins, she joins us at the White House this morning.

So the president is making a number of legal arguments here, and one we haven't heard before, but we're hearing this morning from the president, you wonder what his legal team thinks about it, saying, look, look, look, nothing to see here. I did nothing, this was all on, quote, "advice of counsel."

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, aides around the president had been happy he had not commented on Michael Cohen yet, but then this morning we get that three-part tweet that doesn't exactly sound like it was written by President Trump himself. And it raises all these questions and the legal argument that the president is now making, essentially not disputing the fact that he directed Michael Cohen to make these payments but saying he didn't direct him to make them in an illegal manner.

That's what the president is essentially arguing on Twitter this morning. But of course, that comes, and we've got video of President Trump on Air Force One denying that he ever knew about that payment to Stormy Daniels and saying that they would have to ask Michael Cohen about it. And he obviously clearly knew about the payment to Karen McDougal as well as Jim showed in that audio of that discussion between President Trump and Michael Cohen.

Now here's the thing. People close to the president are worried that there could be more audio that Michael Cohen had of his conversations with the president, including showing the president was well aware of how Michael Cohen was making these payments and how that was going down. But in the president's Twitter feed, he's saying that these are not against the law, and then it raises the question, why did the president say he didn't know about the payments if he truly believes there was nothing wrong with making these payments and that they are not illegal?

Now, Jim and Poppy, one thing that President Trump did not reference in his tweets this morning are two things actually. One, the prosecution agreement with the AMI company, the publisher of the "National Enquirer." They have agreed not to prosecute them now that they're cooperating with them and will let them know about what their deals were. And also, he does not mention the special counsel and Michael Cohen cooperating together.

Michael Cohen cooperating with them, which they said yesterday in court that he had provided them with very valuable information that they found to be reliable.

SCIUTTO: And it's a good point there, because it's not just about the payments. He's cooperating on the core Russia related issues as well.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Kaitlan Collins, thanks very much.

Meantime, key lawmakers on Capitol Hill say that they want to talk to Cohen before he goes to prison, both Democrats and Republicans.

HARLOW: That's right. He goes to prison in March. They've got some months here to do it.

Kara Scannell joins us now with the details. This again is not just Democrats on the Hill coming into power on the House side. This is Republicans like Richard Burr on the Senate Intelligence Committee who want to hear from Cohen.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Richard Burr has said that he wants to hear from Cohen as well as some of these other people that have been cooperating with Mueller's team. So, you know, it doesn't sound like the Russia investigation is wrapping up in any way, especially on the Hill. But then you also have the Democrats with Adam Schiff who's going to be leading the House Intelligence Committee saying he also wants to hear from Cohen. And there's a lot that they could talk to Cohen about.

You know, it's just not limited to the payments that we have been talking about this morning, but it also relates to the Trump Tower meetings, the projects potentially building Trump Tower. So it does sound like at least in Congress, they're going to re-interview Michael Cohen and really try to mine him again for more information.

HARLOW: Yes, I mean, he says he lied to them. He was up there last time, so I bet they have a host of questions for him as well.

Kara, thanks for the reporting.

[10:05:02] Joining us now, CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, our chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. A lot of chiefs in the house. Thank you, guys.


HARLOW: Who do I begin with? Thank you, guys, for being here. Let me start with you, Jeffrey, just on the legal argument here that the president is making. I didn't do anything wrong. It was advice of counsel, oh, and by the way, campaign finance violations aren't even violations and aren't against the law. What?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the first part of that is really a potential defense. The -- now, obviously, it all depends on the facts. But it is a defense to most criminal conduct, including something like this, that if you simply were relying on a lawyer whom you expect to tell -- to give you good legal advice, that's a legitimate defense to a criminal charge. Now whether he in fact did rely on Michael Cohen's legal advice is a separate question. As for the second part, whether it's not a crime or not, that's really

wrong. I mean, that's just not the case. It is true that some campaign violations are not usually treated criminally, but some are. And this is one. And there was a guilty plea. So, you know, it's the usual mix and match of legitimate and absurd arguments from the president, but you know, it's not all wrong.

SCIUTTO: Dana Bash, I thought the president and his camp were saying that Michael Cohen was a bad lawyer and a liar. But they're saying that the president who employed him for many years as a fixer and a lawyer, that he was entirely dependent on his sage legal advice here?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I refer you to the comments that we just heard from our esteemed colleague Jeffrey Toobin which is that you often get a mix and match, what is --


BASH: What is, you know, makes sense and what is reasonable and what is not. However, I do think that what the president was trying to get across here in what was clearly very carefully written by somebody who was trying to put him on the right legal track with this tweet, was that he relied on Michael Cohen. Michael Cohen as a lawyer is supposed to follow the law. He didn't do that. And in retrospect, he was wrong.

I think that's how I read the way that he put it. But you're right, it does fly in the face of many other things that the president and his team said, you know, months ago about Michael Cohen.


BASH: When they were hoping that it wouldn't come down to Michael Cohen trying to flip on the president.

SCIUTTO: It also, of course, flies in the face of the president's lie in April on Air Force One when he said --

BASH: Yes.

SCIUTTO: And we have video of that. He said he had no knowledge of the payments. Of course he had knowledge and there's a thousand pieces of evidence to the contrary.

HARLOW: Good point. What about this key line, Jeffrey, from Mueller's team of prosecutors, as it relates to Cohen beyond any campaign finance violation. And I quote, "Cohen has provided," there being Mueller's team, "their office with credible and reliable information about core Russia related issues under investigation."

Should that actually be more worrisome, troublesome to the president this morning than anything related to campaign finance violation by itself?

TOOBIN: I do, because I don't think anything related to the payments to Stormy Daniels or Karen McDougal provides an existential threat to the presidency of Donald Trump. But Russia may. And if you remember, the charge he pleaded guilty to in the Mueller investigation as opposed to the Southern District was his lie about when the negotiations were going on between Russian interests and the Trump Organization about the Trump Tower in Moscow.

Earlier, he had said it was all over by January 2016, as he acknowledged, all throughout the beginning of 2016, while the Republican primaries were going on, the Trump Organization was negotiating with Moscow, was trying to get Trump Tower built. And when you compare that and put it alongside the president's or candidate Trump's extremely solicitous behavior towards Putin and Russia, that is really questionable. And that really raises the question of was Donald Trump and is Donald Trump working for the United States? Was he working for Russia? Was he working for his own money? Or was he working in the national interests? That is potentially really very troublesome.

SCIUTTO: You know, of course, Dana, a lot of what happens, virtually everything that happens with the special counsel happens behind closed doors. You have Republicans in the Senate, you have Democrats in the House, who are going to control the House, of course, the key committees there, saying they want to bring Michael Cohen to the Hill. They're going to ask him questions about the payments but also the Russia side of this.

Paint a picture of what that means for this president politically because that will be playing out very much more in the open.

[10:10:06] BASH: No, that's a great point. I think it might be an open question whether or not they'll be successful given where Michael Cohen -- they, meaning the Democrats, will be successful in getting Michael Cohen to the Hill. Maybe they will be because Cohen is so tied up with the special counsel, with the Southern District of New York, on active, you know, legal issues. But it poses a very big political risk because even before we really get a sense of what else Michael Cohen has told the special counsel's office, perhaps we'll get more real time from Democrats who will probe on a whole host of things.

The question, though, is, when you're talking about, because this will really be raw politics, if and when the Democrats can bring him back to the Hill, is whether or not the president will have, you know, legitimate reason to poke holes in his credibility because a big part of why Michael Cohen is in trouble in the first place is because he lied to Congress.


BASH: Many months ago.


BASH: So he's not exactly pure to say the least when it comes to his credibility in talking to Congress, especially since then he was trying to protect the president. Now his back is against the wall.

HARLOW: Right. Thank you, Chiefs Dana Bash, Jeffrey Toobin. We appreciate it. Nice to have you both.

Another part of this story, and important and intriguing, the "National Enquirer" element, the publisher or the parent company of the "National Enquirer" now admits its role in paying off a woman who allegedly had an affair with the president, Karen McDougal, buying her story only to kill her story.

We're going to talk to a former senior vice president at the company about this flip, what it means.

SCIUTTO: Plus, we are just days from a possible partial shutdown of the government. Right before Christmas. All eyes now on House Republicans. Their plan to move forward.

And a bipartisan push to do something that the president will not, hold Saudi Arabia accountable, both for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


[10:16:29] SCIUTTO: Federal prosecutors say that President Trump's former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, along with the publisher of the "National Enquirer" acted at the direction of the president to bury the story of a former Playmate who claims she had an affair with Trump and that they did so just weeks before the election. This after the tabloid's parent company AMI admitted to its role in the cover-up again very close to that presidential vote.

HARLOW: So take a moment and listen to this tape from September 2016 right before the election. It's a recording where Michael Cohen and then candidate Trump discuss dealings with David Pecker. David Pecker, pictured there, the head of AMI, which owns the "National Enquirer." The president tells Cohen, quote, "Get rid of this," referring to the Karen McDougal story. And then goes on to say, quote, "in two weeks it's fine." And then this.


COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, because here, you never know where that company, you never know where he's going to be.

TRUMP: Gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct. So I'm all over that.


HARLOW: Joining us now Stu Zakim, former AMI, SVP of Corporate Comms, meaning he ran the communications shop at that company for years.

Thank you for being with us very much.

STU ZAKIM, FORMER SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF AMI CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS: Thanks for having me, Poppy. HARLOW: I think last time you were with me, it was in August. And

this is right when all of this news broke, but now we know that AMI is cooperating.

ZAKIM: Yes, they are.

HARLOW: And Pecker is cooperating. And you told me you never thought Pecker would flip. You thought he would stand by the president, but at the same time, he looks out for himself.

ZAKIM: And proof positive, look what's happening here. It was him or Trump. And in any situation, Pecker will always win. And that's what he's done.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because the president's essential argument here of many arguments and some of them contradictory, is, you know, basically Cohen did it or Cohen as the lawyer should have known. I mean, there have been multiple lies going back to April where the president denied any knowledge of these payments.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: But in terms of the coordination between Cohen and Pecker, his involvement, could they have taken place without the president knowing, knowing the way that relationship worked?

ZAKIM: I don't see how that could have happened. I mean, look how hands-on he is in everything that happens during his presidency. And in his business before that. So in my mind, not having been in the room, but clearly I can't imagine any way that these guys would have pulled this out without Trump's support and direction.

HARLOW: Jerry George, who is the former Los Angeles bureau chief for the "National Enquirer" I think for like 28 years.

ZAKIM: Yes. Yes. It was a while. Sure.

HARLOW: You know him. Yes. You guys worked together there. He was on with our colleague Erin Burnett last night, and this was really interesting. Listen to what he said.


JERRY GEORGE, FORMER LOS ANGELES BUREAU CHIEF, NATIONAL ENQUIRER: David Pecker had given the Trump Organization free reign to dictate the coverage, and of course, you know, cover up any unflattering stories about the candidate during the election.


HARLOW: What struck me in that was his argument that Pecker gave the Trump Organization, quote, "free reign" to dictate coverage. Did you witness that at all?

ZAKIM: Not in that situation, but in any situation where he was dealing with someone he wanted to be -- have influence with. HARLOW: Pecker?

ZAKIM: Yes, Pecker. He would open up the store. I mean, what can we do? What kind of photos do you want? What kind of -- is there a reporter that we have that you'd like to work with? Everything that make it as easy as possible because at the end of the day, he wants to cultivate that person but also the people who's doing this or helps sell magazines for him.

SCIUTTO: You have said that you would not be surprised if AMI had a, quote, "safe on Trump." In other words, a black box of other damaging information. Why do you believe that? What kind of information?

ZAKIM: Well, once again, considering the "Enquirer," not AMI as a whole.

[10:20:01] And the nature of the magazine is this kind of image of let's keep secrets because it gives me power and leverage over you.

SCIUTTO: Catch and kill.

ZAKIM: Catch and kill. And it also makes you exert a little power over these people. And I can't say there was actually a safe. I never saw it in my life. However, it makes perfect sense in what the whole thing is about.

HARLOW: Brian Stelter, our senior media correspondent has a really interesting piece out this morning where he actually goes through what we saw a marked change in the covers of the "National Enquirer" that were so pro-candidate Trump, so anti-candidate Clinton, up until the spring.

ZAKIM: Right.

HARLOW: And then it just stopped. All of the sort of political covers, the pro-Trump, the anti-Hillary covers, they just stopped. Now that could just be coincidence or that could be more.

ZAKIM: I think -- I mean, listen, Brian is a great media reporter and hats off to him for finding that trend. I noticed that a while ago as well. And it seemed that be the turning point where Pecker started to pull back a little from this whole hearted being a propaganda arm for the Trump campaign and then the administration. A number of things may have happened to affect that. A, he may have gotten wind of the investigation, which is probably one thing. But also the audience might have gotten their full of it.

You know, readership down, newsstand, advertising, this is the things business that motivates David Pecker.

HARLOW: Right.

ZAKIM: Not necessarily taking care of his buddy. So if his business is being affected by this overwhelming support, then that's when he starts to pull back. SCIUTTO: So the pattern here is a host of stories critical of

President Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton, and you're saying, and there's part evidence of a number of examples of this, a host of stories damaging to Trump that were buried. Tell us about the audience of the "National Enquirer" and how that would be key or might reach voters that were influential in this election. Because I imagine some folks at home are saying well, it's just the "National Enquirer" but --

ZAKIM: The "National Enquirer" reaches that base. Trump's base is that readership. There's a real overlap in those populations. And if you think about how the power of the media, when you see something on a cover or a story inside but most likely the cover, that's what you need to get. And that tells you the story you have. And look how salacious those covers were that they were doing against Hillary and the other opponents.


SCIUTTO: Understood. Stu, it's a remarkable insight.


SCIUTTO: To what is turning out to be a key part of this story, in light of this investigation.


ZAKIM: Thank you very much.

SCIUTTO: We appreciate your expertise.

ZAKIM: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: Any moment now, we are expecting the plea hearing for the accused Russian spy Maria Butina. The Russian national expected to change her not guilty plea to guilty.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: On charges of conspiracy and crucially cooperate.


[10:27:17] SCIUTTO: In just moments a Russian woman whom the feds call a Russian spy, Moscow calls a pawn, is about to stand before a federal judge in Washington and plead guilty to conspiracy.

HARLOW: Jessica Schneider joins us outside the courthouse with more on Maria Butina's story, how it fits into a much bigger, very important story and picture.

Walk us through what happened today, why she completely is changing tunes here.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: She is changing her tune, Poppy and Jim. You know, we're expecting Maria Butina to appear inside that courtroom at any minute now.

This is the plea hearing. We expect her to change her plea to guilty, pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy.

It's been several months of this tantalizing tale, really, 29-year-old Maria Butina, she came to this country, came to Washington, D.C., portraying herself as this graduate student at American University here in D.C., who had started a gun rights group in Russia, but prosecutors say it was actually a much different story. They say that she was acting under the direction of a former Russian bank official, Aleksandr Torshin.

They say that she was working with him to try to infiltrate conservative political groups like the National Rifle Association. But just recently, she has changed her plea, she has agreed to plead guilty. We're expecting that at any minute.

And really what's interesting here is that she's been cooperating with prosecutors. Now these are the same prosecutors who accused her of working along with her supposed boyfriend, Paul Erickson, he's an American conservative activist, to really infiltrate political groups, to create unofficial communications with some of those U.S. political officials. And they did it all, prosecutors say, to benefit the Russian federation.

And that's really what's key here because in this cooperation with prosecutors, it will be interesting to see if they reveal what she has told them about Russian efforts to infiltrate political groups. And of course, maybe what she's enlightened them on about Russian efforts to meddle or affect the election, the 2016 campaign and election in particular.

So this unfolding inside a courtroom here in district court any minute now. We know that Maria Butina will be in there, expected to plead guilty. It will be interesting to see what exactly prosecutors reveal here and what Maria Butina's defense team will say. After all, this entire time when they have said that she was innocent, that she was here as an American student, there was no other pretense about it. And so we'll see what they reveal inside the courtroom in just a few minutes -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: Thank you, Jessica. We will indeed. Keep us posted.

Ahead for us, lawmakers finally coming together on Capitol Hill. Right now a bipartisan push in the Senate to stand up to the Saudi crown prince. Meantime in the House, some members are uniting to try to avert a government shutdown. We'll talk to two of them.