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Trump Breaks Silence; Trump Blames Cohen; Butina Admits Conspiracy; Senate Poised to Rebuke Trump; CNN New Poll. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: That's a word the president, he likes elegant, he doesn't like embarrassing.

Thanks for joining us today on INSIDE POLITICS. A lot to continue in the conversation.

Don't go anywhere. Brianna Keilar starts right now.

Have a great day.


I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, he's implicated in felonies. His friends are flipping and yet President Trump continues to talk and change his story.

She cozied up to Republicans, the NRA, and, oh, yes, she's an alleged Russian spy. Hear what she just admitted in court.

Plus, one senator bought defense stock after pushing the president to spend more on the military. Did he cross a line?

And, after months and months of high marks, just in, new poll numbers show Melania Trump's factorability ratings have fallen dramatically.

But first, seething, but no longer silent, President Trump goes on a Twitter tirade in response to the three year prison sentence of his former fixer and attorney Michael Cohen. Trump has told associates, Cohen is a liar. And on Twitter today the president said he never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.

CNN White House reporter Jeremy Diamond joins us on this story.

And, Jeremy, in addition to the Cohen sentencing, there's the deal that federal prosecutors struck with a parent company of "The National Enquirer." What's the president's strategy here as more of his friends flip and cooperate with investigators?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Brianna, if the president's response to Michael Cohen flipping on him is any indication, then certainly that strategy is to attack and to deflect blame. In recent months we've heard the president talk about Michael Cohen as weak. We've heard him call him a liar. And today we saw him deflecting blame, essentially saying that he never directed Michael Cohen to do anything illegal.

But what, of course, is notable there is that the president isn't denying that he directed Michael Cohen to make these payments. Of course he can't any more. We have him on tape discussing these payments with Michael Cohen. And we also now have this non-prosecution agreement with AMI, the parent company of "The National Enquirer." Both of those implicating the president in this felony finance violation to which Michael Cohen has now pleaded guilty to.

But we have more from the president now. Just moments ago in an interview with Fox News, the president struck out at Michael Cohen once again.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They put that on to embarrass me. They put those two charges on to embarrass me. They're not criminal charges.

What happened is either Cohen or the prosecutors, in order to embarrass me, said, listen, I'm making this deal for reduced time and everything else. Do me a favor, put these two charges on.


DIAMOND: We have also seen the president, of course, beyond simply blaming people who have flipped on him, like Michael Cohen, and going after them, attacking them. We have also seen him offer the carrots to individuals who have not flipped on him, praising people like Paul Manafort, for example, Roger Stone. That's been the strategy from the president. And beyond that, of course, it's been about the buck stops anywhere but with the president. That is something that the president has made clear in this incident, but also, of course, any time that blame or anything wrong is pointed in his direction.


KEILAR: All right, Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thank you.

I want to bring in now former DOJ prosecutor Joseph Moreno.

Joe, I want to get your reaction to something that the president tweeted. He said, I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called advice of counsel, and the lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.

Does that hold water?

JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER DOJ PROSECUTOR: Well, I mean, this has been bubbling for a couple of days. And so we've kind of read between the tea lines of the tweets. This is where the defense was going, and, sure enough, now it's explicit, right? Advice of counsel is a defense if, in fact, you can say you relied on legal advice to do certain things and therefore I should not have criminal exposure because I relied on my lawyer, who knew better, right?

Now, a lot of things go into whether or not that's a legitimate defense, who knew what, who was warned, who -- how involved was the president. I mean he's clearly, you're right, beyond denying he directed these payments. I mean that seems to be locked in by the evidence now. So whether or not he can thread this needle, that's going to be not doubt front and center in any kind of defense if this goes anywhere.

KEILAR: There's debate still over whether a president can be indicted. DOJ guidance is that they can't. But you have Congressman Adam Schiff who says, you know, this is something that the DOJ needs to revisit. Let's listen.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think the Justice Department needs to reexamine that OLC opinion, Office of Legal Counsel opinion, that you cannot indict a sitting president. I don't think that the Justice Department ought to take the position, and it's certainly not one that would be required in any way by the Constitution, that a president merely by being in office can be above the law, can escape the enforcement of the law by essentially waiting out the law, by waiting out the statute of limitations.


[13:05:06] KEILAR: And yesterday on this program we had former White House counsel under Bill Clinton, Jack Quinn, who said he didn't think it would stand up in court if someone challenged this OLC guidance. What do you think about what Adam Schiff is saying?

MORENO: Well, I get his points, but I'll say this first. I hate the term constitutional crisis. I think that term is used far too much in this town any time there's any kind of issue. However, if you tried to indict and prosecute a sitting president, you would, in fact, have a constitutional crisis on your hands. You would throw the Justice Department into disarray. You would paralyze the presidency.

So the idea is not to have anyone get away with anything. And the idea is to -- there should be some mechanism. So you shouldn't be able to use the presidency as a shield against criminal exposure.

So something definitely has to be done. But in terms of just indicting a president, look, we have an impeachment clause. It's worked. We've seen it work with Bill Clinton. Obviously he wasn't removed. But the process works for addressing wrong-doing by a president. Trying to indict a president would be extremely, extremely difficult.

KEILAR: All right, Joe, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Admitted Russian conspirator Maria Butina has come clean in federal court, telling a judge that she engaged in a conspiracy against the United States. And as part of her guilty plea, Butina admits he acted under the direction of a Russian official and used groups like the National Rifle Association to not only bolster Russian interests, but to influence U.S. politics.

Prosecutors say the Russian official overseeing Butina was Alexander Torshin, who recently retired from the Central Bank of Russia. Torshin met with Donald Trump Junior at the NRA convention during the 2016 campaign. And Trump Junior was previously questioned by Congress about that meeting.

CNN's Sara Murray is outside of the courthouse where Butina pleaded guilty.

And, Sara, she's facing a maximum of five years in prison, but we're told she plans to cooperate in the hopes that that will be lessened.

What do we know about her cooperation agreement?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Brianna, this is all came apart as part of a plea deal. She's already begun cooperating with prosecutors. And she's hoping to get that five year sentence knocked down to somewhere between zero to six months, which, frankly, by the time she was sentenced, would actually be time served.

You know, we know she's been cooperating on two points. One is, of course, her contact with Alexander Torshin and any other Russians who sort of helped direct her activities here in the United States. We know that as part of this agreement, she has to sit for interviews, she has to submit to a full accounting of her finances. She has to provide essentially whatever prosecutors want to know.

Now, the other point that she's cooperating on, and this one is a little awkward, Brianna, is her boyfriend, Paul Erickson. This is the guy who is named over and over again in these documents as U.S. person one, as an American who sort of helped her advance her plot, provided her information on politically influential individuals here in the U.S. Now, he is not facing any charges right now, and he has continued to visit her while she has been incarcerated. But I can tell you, Brianna, his lawyer was in the courtroom today and made a point of introducing himself to the prosecutor on his way out saying, you know, they may need to talk soon.

KEILAR: Wow, that is some drama playing out there.

Sara Murray, thank you so much for that report.

Joe Moreno back with us now.

How do you see this factoring into the Mueller investigation? Because when you read what's available, it's -- you try to read between the lines, but it's not -- it's not a complete link in this picture.

MORENO: Right. So there's a lot of reading between the lines in the Mueller investigation, right, because it's ongoing and we're sort of just waiting and waiting and waiting for some finality here. There's a couple of things we know though. We know Russia interfered

with the 2016 presidential election. We know that. We know that from our intelligence communities. We've know that for two years.

We knew they used social media manipulation. We know they hacked. Now we know they had personnel. And I have no doubt there are other Maria Butinas, young men and women, out there doing the same kinds of human intelligence gathering that she was doing here.


MORENO: So whether or not there's a connection now, that's yet to be determined. But I have to think the special counsel is looking at this very carefully. It's probably not a coincidence that right around the same time Russia was doing these other things with relating to the campaign, she was conducting her activities and infiltrating the Republican Party at a fairly high level.

KEILAR: It's very interesting,

Joe, thank you so much for your insights. We appreciate it.

I want to turn now to Capitol Hill because similar to how they handled Russia sanctions, we are poised to see lawmakers rebuke yet another Trump policy, this time on Saudi Arabia.

CNN's senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is live for us there on Capitol Hill.

What's happen here?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, two significant actions happening in the Senate today. One, the Senate's going to vote later today to pull back U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. A very significant rebuke to the administration's policy. Something the White House furiously opposes. And Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just introduced a joint resolution that had to pass both chambers and get signed by this president that formally blames the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, something that the president and his administration have not been willing to say, but the Senate may go on record on this.

[13:10:14] And Corker just told our colleague Ted Barrett, he wants to get this passed the Senate today.

Now, at the same time, Democrats on the -- are planning their own push in the House next year, including the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who said that they're going to look into this matter very deeply in the new Congress.


RAJU: Do you think that the crown prince should be sanctioned for his alleged involvement in the Khashoggi murder?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: Who should be?

RAJU: The crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

ENGEL: Well, I can't mention some of the things that they told us yesterday and today, but I do think that this horrific killing of this journalist is not something that we can just simply look the other way and say, hey, what are you going to do? This is war and these things happen. These things shouldn't happen. We have to be very pointed about it.


RAJU: Now, with just a couple weeks left with Republicans in control of the House, the question is, what do they do, assuming this Corker resolution to blame Mohammad bin Salman for the murder passes the Senate, will they take something up? We don't know that yet.

And the House Republican leaders have already moved to block that resolution, pulling back U.S. support for the war in Yemen. That is not going to happen this year. So this issue will continue for perhaps into the new Congress and it's not going away any time soon for this White House.


KEILAR: It is not.

Manu Raju, thank you.

Now, just released moments ago, a new CNN poll shows Americans are not hopeful about the way government will work over the next few years. This data comes one month after Democrats swept into control of the House of Representatives.

Now to analyze the numbers, I'm joined now by CNN political director David Chalian.

OK, so let's start with confidence in Congress. This is -- they never do well, but this is pretty interesting.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, I mean, just -- we asked people, are you optimistic or more pessimistic about the way government is going to go in the next couple of years, about this divided government that you, the American people, just delivered to Washington. Only 36 percent of Americans are optimistic about where this is going. A majority of Americans, 52, are pessimistic, Brianna. That, to me, stacks up like, well, that's a tough challenge for Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump both as they begin this new divided government relationship.

KEILAR: And the president, once again, he's saying that Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Tell us about that. Give us the fact check.

CHALIAN: Yes, I -- it is totally unclear how the president believe it (ph). He thinks, well, we got this new USMCA, the new NAFTA, the Americans -- the Americans side of the deal is going to get a little bit more. We're going to save some money. And we're going to apply that money to the wall I think is what the president's logic is here. Except it doesn't work that way.

I mean, first of all, the Mexican officials have already said, according to our Michelle Kosinski, there's no Mexican dollar paying for this wall. That's first and foremost.


CHALIAN: Secondly, as you know, the president just said the other day, I will proudly shut down the government if Congress doesn't pay for this wall. So Senator Schumer, of course, said today on the Senate floor, if you've got Mexico to pay for it, why do you have to come to us for $5 billion for this? So it's blowing up his arguments. He's trying to have it both ways. He wants the money from Congress. He's threatening to shut down the government over it. He claims Mexico's going to pay for it out of the trade agreement.

One more fact check for you, the trade agreement is not yet approved by Congress. It still actually needs to be approved by Congress for it to be an in effect trade agreement.

KEILAR: Wow. That is -- I mean there are just all kinds of holes in that, it's so interesting.

CHALIAN: And this brand-new poll that we have, Brianna --


CHALIAN: Fifty-seven percent of Americans oppose the border wall.


CHALIAN: A big majority.

KEILAR: Wow, that is huge.

OK, so "The National Enquirer" published -- well, American Media Incorporated, the publisher, I should say, of "National Enquirer," so the parent company, they struck this deal with federal prosecutors. And there's something interesting that kind of popped up here. It might answer why the president did so well with non-college educated white women.

CHALIAN: Well, we do know that that was -- you know the president loves to say he won women. He did not win women in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.


CHALIAN: But among white, non-college educated women, the president did remarkably well. And there is a theory here, if you look at all of these covers of "The National Enquirer," during the Trump campaign, OK, look at all that negative attention that lots of women saw in newsstands, as they were checking out in grocery stores. There was a clear mission, just looking at those covers, to damage Hillary Clinton. And now the question is, was that somehow in cahoots and part of some agreement that "The National Enquirer" would basically be a campaign arm for the Trump campaign in making its anti-Hillary Clinton argument.

KEILAR: And that could be huge. That will be so interesting.

David Chalian, thank you.

Now, more fresh CNN poll numbers ahead, including Melania Trump's factorability rating dropping double-digits in just two months. What's behind the sharp decline?

[13:15:07] Plus, crossing the line. One GOP senator purchased thousands in dollars in defense stock after pushing for defense spending. He speaks exclusively to CNN.

And more fallout from the detainment of a top Chinese executive. Justice officials insisting the department is not a tool of trade despite Trump's recent comments. A member of the Judiciary Committee reacts next.


KEILAR: President Trump breaks his silence on the Michael Cohen sentencing. He says he never directed his former attorney, Cohen, to break the law and didn't do anything wrong. We have Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island joining us from Capitol Hill.

[13:20:04] Congressman thank you for being with us.


KEILAR: And in these tweets so the president is blaming Cohen. He saying essentially he's the lawyer, he the lawyer should have acted legally, and that he, President Trump, relied on the advice of his counsel, that the liability is on Michael Cohen.

Does the president have a point here?

CICILLINE: No, the president doesn't have a point here. This is -- Mr. Cohen has acknowledged in open court, and the judge has found, that he was directed to commit these felonies at the direction of the president of the United States. This is the president of the United States directing another individual to commit two felonies.

And, you know, you have to wonder, if the claim is, oh, I didn't know what I directed him to do was against the law, then why did you concoct this elaborate scheme to hide these payments, to make up a fake reason for them, to create, you know, fake accounts?

So this is all -- I think supports Mr. Cohen's claim that the president directed him to do this for one reason, to prevent him from these -- coming out in the final weeks of the campaign.

It's now confirmed from "National Enquirer" that they were aware that the purpose of this was to prevent these stories from coming out during the campaign and damaging Mr. Trump's candidacy. So, you know, he can't assign the blame for this to Mr. Cohen. He's accepted his responsibility and pled guilty to these offenses. But in his allocution, he made it clear that this was done at the direction of the president, who obviously benefitted from his conduct.

KEILAR: Cohen was sentenced for multiple crimes, among them two felony campaign finance violation that he said he executed at the direction of Trump. The president keeps saying that Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign charges that were not criminal. They were indeed criminal. They were not civil, as the president alleges. What do you make of that?

CICILLINE: Yes, I mean, that's absolutely right. You know, the president has made this suggestion that while other people file their campaign reports late and they get a fine. Those are different offenses. These are two crimes. They are felonies. They are crimes. They're not civil infractions. They're not campaign violations. They're felonies. And they relate to violations of campaign finance law. So I think it's the president's effort to minimize what is very serious conduct because we now have a witness who has testified in open court that the president of the United States directed him to commit two felonies, which is obviously very serious.

KEILAR: Lanny Davis, who is a lawyer normally associated with the Clinton orbit going way back with the Clintons, he's now advising Cohen. And he said that Cohen shared his testimony plan, which we now know was false testimony under oath to Congress, he shared that with the White House before he gave it to Congress. Let's listen to what he told Bloomberg Radio.


LANNY DAVIS: There's no question that President Trump knew what Michael's testimony would be and since President Trump was told about the Tower conversations that Michael Cohen said he had with the senior Russian official and that he conferred with his client, Mr. Trump, about those conversations, the inevitable conclusion is that Mr. Trump and the White House knew that Michael Cohen would be testifying falsely to Congress and did not tell him not to.


KEILAR: What more do you, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, want to know about this?

CICILLINE: Well, we should remember that the president also made false statements about the subject of that meeting, assisted in the preparation of a statement which put forth a false explanation about Russian adoptions. So there's a lot here to learn about.

And, again, it's more evidence that this president, rather than directing everyone involved in these investigations, to be forthcoming and tell the truth was aware that people were saying things consistent with the untruths or the lie that he had been telling about the meeting. So I think there's a lot of additional questions that we're going to

have in the Judiciary Committee to really understand what happened here. We intend, of course, to do responsible oversight. That's our constitutional obligation. We're going to get the work done for the American people, drive down health care costs, rebuild the infrastructure of our country, take on the pervasive corruption in Washington, but at the same time that we fulfill those responsibilities, we're going to fulfill our responsibilities to hold this administration accountable and get to the bottom of this stuff.

KEILAR: It your committee going to bring Michael Cohen to testify in the new year, because it certainly sounds like he's willing?

CICILLINE: Yes, I hope so. I hope the committee will, in the furtherance of its oversight responsibilities, bring a number of witnesses before the committee, either for interviews or for testimony. The American people deserve to know what happened here, to know all the facts.

We'll obviously want to make sure we do it in a way that does not interfere in any way with the ongoing criminal investigations by the special counsel or by the Southern District of New York. So I think we'll have to do it in close coordination to be sure that we're not interfering with their going investigations.

KEILAR: And it's interesting to listen to Democrats right now because they're generally not jumping at the chance to call for impeachment. Right now the president is implicated, as we just discussed, into felony campaign finance violations. The special counsel's findings, of course, are still outstanding. They could be more serious. Is that what Democrats are waiting for, or are they really waiting to see if public opinion is on their side to move for impeachment?

[13:25:14] CICILLINE: Yes, no, I think it's -- there are really two reasons for that. One is, we want to make sure we stay focused on the urgent priorities the American people elect us to get done that we ran on. And I just articulated those. So we want to be clear about that.

On the other hand, we have invested a lot in protecting the work of the special counsel, making certain that he has the resources he needs to complete this work. He's already indicted three dozen individuals and companies and had some guilty pleas. So I think it's very important that we await the final conclusion of that work. That will be very valuable to the American people. It will be very valuable to our decisions moving forward. We think it's important that we get that report and that we read it and that we take appropriate action.

KEILAR: When you get that, can you imagine a situation where, after seeing this report, if the special counsel were to find any evidence of the president's involvement in collusion with the Russians or other high crimes, can you imagine a situation where Democrats still with an eye to impeaching Bill Clinton and how that backfired on Republicans, where Democrats could choose a pursue a series of hearings instead of impeaching the president?

CICILLINE: No, look, I think if the report in fact shows conspiracy between the Trump campaign and high level Russian officials to attack our democracy that were intended to interfere with American democracy, I think we have no choice. We would have a solemn --

KEILAR: High level Russian officials. What about if it's -- what about if it's Russian intel actors?

CICILLINE: I think if it's Russian intel actors conspiring with the Trump campaign officials to interfere with the outcome of our election, we have no choice. We have a sworn duty to defend our democracy, to uphold the rule of law. While we won't be delighted in taking these actions, we are duty-bound to do that. So if that report requires removal of this president, I don't think there -- anyone will hesitate to do it. We have to wait for that report, but whatever -- wherever the facts take us, we ought to be prepared to do it however difficult it might be. We have a solemn responsibility to defend the rule of law, to defend our democracy and to take whatever action that report warrants, period.

KEILAR: Congressman David Cicilline, thank you so much for being with us.

CICILLINE: Thank you.

KEILAR: This just in, President Trump unloading on Michael Cohen and downplaying his relationship with his former lawyer and fixer and member of his inner circle. We're going to play you that sound.

Plus, the Pelosi effect. After this week's extraordinary face-to-face with the president, her coat emerged as the real winner. We'll tell you about that.