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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Source: Trump Inaugural Committee Under Criminal Investigation; Source: Trump Was At 2015 Meeting About Hush Money Payments; Trump Tries To Deflect And Deny On Hush Money Payments. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OUTFRONT next, breaking news, federal prosecutors now looking into the president's inaugural committee. As we are learning, Trump himself was in the room talking with the "National Enquirer" publisher about hush money payments. Are the walls closing in?

Plus President Trump claims he never reimbursed "The National Enquirer" for allegedly paying off an alleged mistress, but that doesn't matter.

And it could be where Michael Cohen is sent to prison, so what's life at the so-called castle behind bars? Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, the breaking news, criminal investigation, President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural committee is now under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, and again, the source of damaging information is Michael Cohen.

According to the "Wall Street Journal," the investigation linked to materials seized from the investigation into Cohen and tonight the president is desperately trying to run away from his decade-long, more than decade-long fixer. Here's White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders just moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The biggest thing the president did in his engagement in the inauguration was to come here and raise his hand and take the oath of office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Sanders' attempts to keep the president away from Cohen's damning tapes, e-mails and other evidence coming hours after the president himself tried to say that anything illegal his fixer did has nothing to do with the boss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: But we're learning something tonight that makes that claim impossible to believe. We have learned Trump himself was in the room during discussions about hush payments to women during the campaign. In the room, along with Michael Cohen, also there, the publisher of "The National Enquirer," David Pecker.

Cohen now, just keep in mind, has pleaded guilty to two felonies for those payments. He is going to prison for this. Now we know that Cohen was far from, "on his own" on that one. The president of the United States was in the room. The implication here couldn't be any louder or clearer.

Let's start with Shimon Prokupecz, OUTFRONT live in New York. And, Shimon, what are you learning tonight about this new criminal investigation?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, the big thing here that investigators are looking at is whether or not people were paying money, whether people were giving money to the inauguration committee because they were looking to influence the incoming administration. And that is what it appears at this point what is happening in this investigation.

And as you said, according to the "Wall Street Journal," this information was learned during the raids of Michael Cohen and obviously Michael Cohen has been cooperating, in part, with the Southern District of New York so it's perhaps there where they learned some of this information. He has been cooperating with investigators on a lot of the campaign finance issues, so it could be that he is also told them things that we just don't know about.

The other thing significant here, this is obviously what they're looking at is whether or not there's some kind of pay to play scheme here, which is something the FBI agents and U.S. attorneys all across the country have gotten very good at investigating, and certainly something, we just don't know what it is, has given them some concern, the investigators that is, that they've opened this criminal investigation and now they're going over the money. You know, we keep hearing, follow the money, follow the money, and here we have the FBI and the U.S. attorney here in New York now doing that.

And also just one last point, Erin, as we've reported previously, the Mueller team, the special counsel team, has been looking at some of the money that went into the inauguration because there was concern that there was foreign influence, foreign money that was going into the inauguration. This appears to be separate from that.

BURNETT: All right, which is obviously important. I mean, separate means separate but it also means the broader and more people looking into it.

All right, Shimon, thank you. I want to go to Jeff Zeleny who's at the White House. Jeff, you know, as all of these things start to mount, this criminal investigation news happening just within the past hour or so, what is the mood right now inside the White House? JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, good evening. The mood from the president is one of defiance. We saw him all day long talking in interviews, on social media, clearly trying to blame all of this on Michael Cohen but the reality is, as more and more investigations merge together, others in the White House, in the West Wing, frankly, aren't sure what to make of this.

There are some questions tonight, if the president has said this was not anything illegal, a campaign finance violation was not a crime, then why is he not saying that he directed the money as federal prosecutors did? So many questions mounting up here.

But, Erin, the real concern I'm picking up talking to a variety of people here at the White House and Republicans across Washington on Capitol Hill, all of these investigations, all of this drama has real effects on who is going to work inside this administration in the New Year. That chief of staff position, first among them. People are unwilling to take these positions, are worried about these positions because of investigations just like this.

[19:05:05] No one knows what the state of things here will be, so that is the real implications of all of this. Erin?

BURNETT: All right, thank you very much, Jeff Zeleny.

And with these big developments, let's go to Mark Preston, our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, chief political analyst and Harry Litman, former deputy assistant attorney general.

Harry, how important is this latest development? Obviously, there are several today but this latest one, criminal investigation into the inaugural committee.

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes, I would say it's huge. First of all, you have now compared with a few weeks ago, when there was just stray criminal conduct, everything now is going off within inches of the president, his business dealings, his candidacy, his inauguration, and people as well.

This latest strikes perilously close to Melania Trump because the main vendor who got a seven-figure salary in the inauguration is Stephanie Wolkoff, who's very close to her. Ditto, the campaign finance, potentially implicates trump junior and to Shimon's point, it's not Michael Cohen who's carrying the water all by himself.

Remember on the inauguration, Richard Gates, the deputy chair of inauguration's already cooperating and likewise, besides Cohen, you have David Pecker on the campaign finance. So, Mueller and the SDNY already have a lot of information in hand.

BURNETT: All right. So, Mark, you know, look, the inaugural committee gave a statement out -- gave it to me a few moments ago. They say they're not aware of any investigation. They haven't been contacted by prosecutors. Obviously not been contacted by prosecutors is not necessarily relevant or always a good sign from what we've seen thus far. MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Absolutely. And a very factual in their statement and they also stated that the donors to pick, which was the presidential inaugural committee --

BURNETT: Yes.

PRESTON: -- were all vetted under FEC guidelines but that doesn't say that those donors perhaps could have been straw donors for a foreign government trying to come in to influence the election. That doesn't mean that there wasn't money misused or misspent or misappropriated illegally. It doesn't mean there wasn't some quid pro quo discussions between folks who might have been contributing and folks who might have been running and who had close ties to Donald Trump.

This is -- I think, is so accurately explained right there. This is exploding all around the front of the White House right now. And if you're President Trump and you're looking out, you've got to feel like you're under siege, you've got to wonder who is your allies.

BURNETT: And I mean that's the question, who are they? I mean, Gloria, you know, one thing that ties these stories together when you talk about the hush payments to women, with the principal purpose, prosecutors say, right, of influencing the election, and now a criminal investigation into the inaugural committee and funds, it's Michael Cohen, right? He is at the center of all of this. How important is he now? I mean, it's thing after thing after thing.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Huge -- I think hugely important. And I think that's why the special counsel went to bat for him the other day because he's very relevant and important to their investigations. And of course according to the "Wall Street Journal" piece, this investigation comes out of tapes that were taken from Michael Cohen's office when he was raided.

So, you can place Michael Cohen kind of at the center of a lot of things, and the tentacles just, you know, protrude from him, and I think that, you know, Michael -- Michael Cohen wants to talk. He is singing to the Feds. He'd like to get his sentence reduced before he goes to prison on March 6th.

BURNETT: Yes.

BORGER: So you can assume that he's going to continue cooperating. He wants to talk to Congress. And this is a big problem for Donald Trump in lots of ways we know and lots of ways we don't know yet.

BURNETT: And, Harry, you know, that -- to that point, what Gloria is saying, Michael Cohen is -- has just sat down for another interview with George Stephanopoulos. This is going to be a public, you know, answering all these questions in public. Just sat down with Michael Cohen for his first response to sentencing and President Trump.

This guy wants to talk, Harry, and not just in private to prosecutors and Mueller.

LITMAN: I think that's right. You get a sense of him as sort of overwrought and conflicted and now wanting to come clean and bare his soul. Of course he also has an incentive. He still has the possibility of reducing his sentence. But if he's at the center of all these various transactions, the epicenter is the president.

He -- if -- in Trump's universe, if he's the sun, all the planets now are being implicated all around him, and the -- there's a real feeling of a drum beat, and also, everything that Mueller or SDNY is finding has corroboration, and they are -- it's not simply looking at Michael Cohen's words.

[19:10:08] BURNETT: And I think, Mark, that is the key point. I don't think we can say it enough, right? They put it in the original and say, you know, as Trump keeps saying, Michael Cohen is a liar. Sure, we all know he's lied. They're making a point. This isn't based on what he says. Other people have corroborated it. They have tapes. They have e-mails. They actually have the proof and facts at this point.

PRESTON: It's almost absurd that we have to sit here and discuss it, right?

BURNETT: Yes.

PRESTON: If this was anybody else, we're talking about his lawyer, who he himself, I mean, we all remember the image of him popping back into Air Force One and on the airplane and saying, oh, yes, you have to ask Michael Cohen, he's my lawyer. Well, now we hear him say, oh, Michael Cohen wasn't my lawyer. We all know that he was your lawyer. We know that he handled --

BURNETT: Yes, right. You're referring to today, he's like, oh, he was more of a PR guy.

PRESTON: Right, more of a PR guy. The bottom line is, is that there's no way that we would see this investigation operating the way it was if there wasn't corroborating evidence and everything was coming to a close. You have to give it to Mueller for that. You have to give it to him for that.

BURNETT: You know, Gloria, I want to just play what Trump told Fox News, you know, about the charges against Cohen, related specifically to these payments, right, the payments to women that he said the principal reason for, which was influencing the election, which they say. Here's Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: I mean, seriously, Gloria, said, do me a favor -- Michael Cohen would say, do me a favor, add some more charges.

BORGER: Yes, because I don't like Donald Trump.

BURNETT: Because I want to make Trump look bad.

BORGER: Right. Well, of course, it's always about Donald Trump, right, number one. So this is about embarrassing him. It's not about embarrassing him. It's about a felony. First of all.

Secondly, you know, and we heard this in the Fox interview today. The president kind of weaves these scenarios without any basis in fact in order to explain away what the facts really are. And I think now, you know, Michael Cohen is talking. He made it very clear in court the other day that he doesn't want, as I think he put it, history to judge him as the villain in all of this and we know who he thinks the villain is, which is Donald Trump.

So this is going to continue, and the special counsel and the Southern District of New York have a treasure-trove of information that they got from Michael Cohen's office, which, by the way, when it was raided, remember how angry Donald Trump was about that?

BURNETT: Oh, yes.

BORGER: Remember. Right? Well, now he, you know, now Michael Cohen is not his friend, but there's a lot of stuff there that we don't know about. So the layers of the onion are just going to get peel.

BURNETT: We did not know about but I guess the person, you know, who knew about it would have a reason to be angry about it, as he was. All right.

BORGER: Absolutely.

BURNETT: Thank you all three so very much.

And next, President Trump, well, changing the subject.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I have to go check. I don't think they even paid any money to that tabloid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Have to go check?

Plus, Russian Maria Butina who came face-to-face with President Trump. Today, guilty, admitting to being in the illegal agent working at the direction of the Russian government.

And first lady Melania Trump's poll numbers take a dive. Why?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Tonight, deflect and deny. President Trump trying to muddy the waters when it comes to the hush money payments made to women during the election. He said this to Fox News when asked about Michael Cohen's three-year prison sentence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I don't think they even paid any money to that tabloid, OK? I don't think we made a payment to that tabloid. I was asking the question. I don't think we made a payment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: It doesn't matter whether Trump made a payment to the tabloid. He was actually in the room with the guy in charge of the tabloid who made the payment. And the reason Trump is in serious legal trouble, possibly, is because prosecutors say he is the one who directed the payments. OK.

He directed the payments be made to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors say those payments made with the principal goal of influencing the election.

OUTFRONT now, former L.A. bureau chief at the "National Enquirer," Jerry George who worked for the tabloid for 28 years, and former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, Larry Noble.

So, Larry, let's get right to the bottom of this. The president is trying to say, OK, well, you know, I don't know whether we actually paid this tabloid. The tabloid of course did pay, in this case, Karen McDougal. What do you make of his attempt to say, well, you know, I don't know whether we paid the tabloid itself?

LARRY NOBLE, FORMER GENERAL COUNSEL OF THE FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION: Well, like many of his attempts, it's one unbelievable and two, if true, it actually be more serious. The payment by the tabloid, the payment by AMI of $150,000 is what was illegal. They say it was for the purpose of influencing the election --

BURNETT: That's right.

NOBLE: -- Donald Trump was in the room when they were discussing it, and so that was the violation. That is the felony. The -- if Donald Trump --

BURNETT: Right. So what you're saying -- I just want to be clear. It doesn't matter whether he paid them back or not, that's not the point. The point is that the payment itself was a felony and he was in the room as part of the people who decided to do it. Correct?

NOBLE: Correct. Right. And beyond that, had he then paid them back, he could argue if he paid them back personally out of his own pocket. He could argue, OK, it was a violation, it was a loan but I gave them money back to them. So, in fact, he actually got himself into even more trouble by saying that he didn't pay him back because it turned it from what would have been a loan which is still a contribution into just an outright contribution.

BURNETT: OK, that's pretty amazing and I'm sure he didn't realize that, that he could have just made this even worse. NOBLE: Right.

BURNETT: I mean, Jerry, let me ask you, right. We're talking about now, you know, the new reporting tonight, right? Donald Trump is now in the room with David Pecker who runs "The National Enquirer," right, the publisher. Donald Trump and Michael Cohen. David pecker and the president go back decades and they are friends. What lengths would Pecker go to protect Trump?

JERRY GEORGE, FORMER AMI REPORTER AND SENIOR EDITOR: Well, Erin, I think, you know, over the years David Pecker has proven his friendship but there were, you know, obviously there were limits, and obviously David Pecker became aware that he was getting in over his head with this guy.

[19:20:10] You know, as Larry said, the bombshell today is that he was in the room. OK. Regardless of Rudy Giuliani saying that, you know, this was just a civil matter or the president's denial, the president's finally conceding that, OK, I was in the room, you know, up until, you know, weeks ago, he had no knowledge of any of this.

BURNETT: Right.

GEORGE: It's just -- it's just -- he's just burying himself further.

BURNETT: Well, and he keeps moving the goal posts. First he knew nothing about it, then, OK, then, well --

GEORGE: Exactly.

BURNETT: -- maybe if I was, you know -- but not -- they're saying he's in the room and he's saying Michael Cohen did it without him knowing about it or not being directed, which obviously makes no sense at all, given their relationship.

Larry, let's be clear here. American Media, right, which is David Pecker, you know, controlled, right, "National Enquirer" is a part of it, right, has an agreement now with prosecutors. And in that agreement, they have agreed to, "provide cooperation in the future," right? So, in other words, that opens the door, it sounds like, Larry, to, we're not just talking about this story about Karen McDougal, that David Pecker paid her $150,000 for and then killed it, didn't run it, right?

It opens the door to, were there other Trump stories that were paid for, buried with the principal purpose of influencing the election. Am I reading too much into it?

NOBLE: No, I don't think you are at all. If one -- if we've learned one thing during these past months, years, it's that every day brings a new revelation. That just when we think we have a handle on what's going on, it gets worse for Trump. So, I would not be shocked to find out that there's more that they have. That more stories will come out about what AMI did for Trump.

But you know, what we have right now, this one story, this admission that AMI paid $150,000 to McDougal and Trump was in the room when they discussed this, that is your crime right there. But it may come out that there were other times when Pecker helped run interference for the campaign and that's just going to make it more serious.

BURNETT: And to that point, OK, we're talking now about Karen McDougal and paying off a woman, you know, which Michael Cohen is acknowledging, at least, when it comes to even Stormy Daniels, right, felony.

Jerry, the "Enquirer" didn't just do that. It also when -- didn't just try to protect Trump. It also went negative on Trump's rivals, right? September 2015, cover story claimed Hillary Clinton had just six months to live, literally, that was -- that was obviously three years ago. August 2016, right before the election, cover story about Hillary Clinton saying she gained 103 pounds and was eating herself to death. April of that year, let's remember, wasn't just Hillary Clinton, right? Remember the whole Ted Cruz' father killed JFK or linked to the assassination. Obviously, no proof of that.

Was all of this done with Trump's knowledge, explicit blessing, in your opinion, Jerry?

GEORGE: Certainly his fine hand can be seen. Virtually the "Enquirer" turned Donald Trump's opponents into cartoon characters with, you know, the more bizarre the story, the more laughs, I'm sure, that the president and David had. It became bizarre. I mean, you know, Hillary gaining 162 pounds and 12 weeks from death. Hillary and Barack Obama wiring, you know, the Trump penthouse. It was -- the stories became ludicrous.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you both very much. Obviously much more to come on that as we said. The whole key is that they have agreed to cooperate in the future. This is ongoing.

Next, alleged Russian spy Maria Butina, the latest here, pleading guilty today to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the Republican Party.

And her contacts with a guy who had been the Trump -- a Trump foreign policy adviser.

Plus, public opinion of Melania Trump plummeting. This as she is speaking out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I would say the opportunists who are using my name or my family name to advance themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[19:27:55] CUOMO: Tonight, guilty. Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty today to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the Republican Party in the United States. Butina is the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence American politics ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Let's be clear, pleading guilty to being an illegal foreign agent of the Russian government. It's an incredible development. As part of her plea deal, she is now cooperating with federal investigators.

OUTFRONT now, Jessica Schneider. She's been following the Butina case from the beginning. And, you know, Jessica, look, the denials again and again and again, and yet here we are, a guilty plea. It was a stunning appearance.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It really was, Erin, and we learned some of the details of those years of deception. Really, this was a sustained effort by Maria Butina at the direction of former Russian bank official Alexander Torshin. Prosecutors say really the conspiracy kicked off in March 2015. That's when Butina drafted this whole proposal about how she would be the unofficial conduit between Russia and the U.S. And how specifically she would try to infiltrate the Republican Party because she wanted to do it through the National Rifle Association, which she viewed as having that influence over the GOP.

Now, to do all this, prosecutors say Butina proposed getting $125,000 from Torshin, who's a Russian billionaire and then finally, when she kicked her plan into gear, she did a lot, Erin. She invited NRA members to go to Moscow, where they met with Russian officials in December of 2015 and then as recently as last year, 2017. Butina worked to get a Russian delegation together where they attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington and she said the goal there was to establish via this Russian delegation a back channel of communications.

So, really, now that she's pleaded guilty, she's agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. She could potentially tell them a lot more about any crimes that might have been committed. She'll be sitting down for interviews with law enforcement. And, Erin, potentially she could even reveal more about Russian efforts to infiltrate these political groups and interfere with the 2016 election. So pleading guilty today, but there could be a lot more to come for Maria Butina in the months and years ahead.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Jessica.

I want to go straight now to Democratic Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

This is obviously square in the center of your purview, Senator, a Russian national pleading guilty to conspiring against the United States of America, certainly a stunning moment. How significant is this guilty plea?

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It is really a remarkable development and let me tell you, Erin, what I think is now most striking.

Since Butina agreed to cooperate with our prosecutors, the Russian government, right up to the very top, is behaving as if they're worried that Butina has a smoking gun. And what I'm referring to, specifically, the Russians went to visit her in prison. She had something like six visits. They helped with a very aggressive social media campaign, free Butina, that sort of thing. And they were just all the way in her corner until they learned about the guilty plea and she was cooperating with our prosecutors.

Now, very recently, Putin has actually pretended he doesn't even know who she is. That's not the kind of behavior we saw for months, and it certainly doesn't suggest they're innocent.

BURNETT: And obviously, here, you know, over her -- the time of her efforts, right, they included multiple meetings with a former national security adviser, J.D. Gordon, for now President Trump who expected to be in the transition, and also a rally she attended where then candidate Donald Trump, she gets the first question. He calls on her for the first question. Let me play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIA BUTINA, ACCUSED RUSSIA SPY: I'm visiting from Russia, so my question --

DONALD TRUMP (R), THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, Putin. Good friend of Obama, Putin. He liked Obama a lot. Go ahead.

BUTINA: My question, if you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in relationships with my country and do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that damaging both economies or you have any other ideas?

TRUMP: OK. Obama gets along with nobody. The whole world hates us.

I know Putin, and I'll tell you what. We get along with Putin. I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Senator, how does she get that first question of a presidential candidate? Is that random luck?

WYDEN: Erin, it takes a little chutzpah to argue that that was just a rare coincidence. And the fact is, there are so many unanswered questions, one of the primary focuses of mine has been on the follow the money issues, because that's really how you compromise somebody. That's counterintelligence 101.

And I have been digging for a year into this whole issue of the NRA, the relationship with the Russian oligarchs, all the visits that you talked about. The NRA has given me three different accounts of whether they have gotten foreign money. They won't talk to us about whether they vet the money to make sure there aren't foreign donations coming in. There are a lot of very troubling unanswered questions here.

BURNETT: I want to ask you also, Senator, about the other big developments tonight. The president's inaugural committee is now under criminal investigation in New York. We have learned that Donald Trump himself, the candidate, was in the room for a meeting with Michael Cohen and the "National Enquirer's" David Pecker when they explicitly discussed hush payments, which of course prosecutors say were made for the principal purpose of influencing the election, a felony for which Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty and is going to prison.

How much legal jeopardy do you think the president is in tonight?

WYDEN: First of all, with respect to that "Wall Street Journal" story, Erin, I can't comment on it. The sources are unnamed. As a member of the intelligence committee, you can't --

BURNETT: That's the inaugural committee criminal investigation just for our viewers. OK.

WYDEN: And let me tell you what I find most striking with respect to the new allegations about the hush money. My staff went and added it up. We now have had six separate stories from the president with respect to whether the payments were made, how they were made, and, like, this, again, is not the conduct and the behavior of an innocent man.

And I think with each one of these accounts, which consistently contradicts all of the other stories, it sure suggests to me that he faces increased legal jeopardy.

BURNETT: All right. Senator Wyden, thank you very much. Good to see you.

WYDEN: Thank you for having me.

BURNETT: And next, the first lady's public image taking a big hit.

[19:35:03] What is behind the plunging poll numbers for Melania Trump?

Plus, we take you to the prison where Michael Cohen could be sent for the next three years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like a boys' camp. It's like when you're a kid and you're going to summer camp.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: All right. Tonight, there's been a big drop in the polls for the first lady, and it's actually pretty stunning. Let me show you the numbers: 43 percent have a favorable opinion of Melania Trump, 36 percent unfavorable.

Here's what's really important here, though. It's the drop. That 43 percent is down from 54 percent just 2 months ago. That is an 11- point decline and when you look at how much -- it's been ticking down, but it's the biggest single drop that we've seen, and now we're talking about almost 20 points from the high.

It comes as she says the hardest part of being the first lady is dealing with, quote, opportunists.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I would say the opportunists who are using my name or my family's name to advance themselves from comedians to journalists to performers, book writers.

[19:40:06] SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Does it hurt?

TRUMP: It doesn't hurt. The problem is they're writing the history, and it's not correct.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: It's very clear whose side she's on, this whole, you know, Melania Trump is being held hostage, she's part of the opposition, it doesn't seem to be true.

OUTFRONT now, Stephen Moore, informal White House adviser and author of "Trumponomics", and Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist.

Maria, 11 points from October to December and at one point it was up to 57 percent. Her husband's approval ratings were low, hers were always much higher. The biggest declines, one of them, white college graduates, crucial group for the president when it came to winning in some important areas, 17-point drop there. What happened?

MARIA CARDONA, FORMER DNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think that a lot of people tried to give her the benefit of the doubt and essentially believing, maybe, behind the scenes, she would be the one to soften Trump up, she would be the one to try to get him to exercise a little bit of civility, a little bit of humility, to focus on what's good for the whole country as opposed to just giving his base what they want. And it hasn't really happened to the extent that people expected.

I think the other thing that you're seeing is that she has now adopted this woe is me attitude, and we just saw it in the sound byte that you put out there, and she also had another interview recently where she said that she believes she is the most bullied person that is out there. And so, I think when people look to her and say, how can she essentially with the kind of bully pulpit that she has, she even has this supposed program that she wants to focus on cyberbullying but that's not really what she focuses on when she talks publicly.

And so, I think that people don't really understand what it is that she wants to accomplish as first lady. I know that they know that she's reluctant to even be where she is, but they don't believe that she has done everything that she can to focus on what's positive out of this huge negative administration.

BURNETT: Well, she's made it very clear, Steve, that she is on team Donald Trump, okay? Which, let's be real, I think Maria has a fair point. There were a lot of people who kind of thought when she wore the whole jacket, I don't care, do you, that that was giving the you- know-what to her husband, right? There were people who thought that.

But that is not the case. She has been outspoken about how defensive she is of him, how paranoid she is on his behalf recently. Here she is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I follow what's going on, and I give my husband advice, and my honest opinion, and sometimes he listens and sometimes he doesn't.

INTERVIEWER: He's been in office now almost two years. Has he had people that you didn't trust working for him?

TRUMP: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Did you let him know?

TRUMP: I let him know.

INTERVIEWER: And what did he do?

TRUMP: Well, some people, they don't work there anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: It's clear what team she's on, Steve.

STEPHEN MOORE, DISTINGUISHED VISITING FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: She's on team Trump, but this is why, you know, I mean, I think I and most Americans love a woman who stands by her man. That's what a wife should do and stand by her husband. She does this.

Look, I think, you talk about civility. She's been -- she's been treated so miserably by the media in terms of the harsh treatment of her. I've met Melania Trump. I love the lady. I think she's elegant. She's classy. She's like a new Jackie Kennedy in the White House.

And you talk about her behavior. Look at her charitable giving. I mean, she's done huge amounts of fund-raising for groups like Wounded Veterans, for fighting hunger, for literacy. I mean, I just don't understand. It's one thing to not like Donald Trump, but to blame his behavior on her, I think, is just very unfair, frankly, and the reason her opinion polling is down is because there are a lot of Americans who just, they see the name Trump, and they say, I don't like anybody named Trump right now.

BURNETT: Maria, is that what Americans want to see, a woman who stands by her man?

CARDONA: Well, not if that man is Donald Trump. And it could be that that is completely unfair to her, because, you know, this is the -- she's married to him and again, I don't think she wanted this role. We see that she's very reluctant to be first lady. That could be also one of the reasons why people see her in such a negative light. But I also think that people expect her to, frankly, make the most of

this very public, what could be very beneficial to the country bully pulpit and she could very well do that if, frankly, Erin, she had chosen an issue that people could not say, oh, she's not taking this seriously.

BURNETT: You mean as opposed to bullying, right, because of the obvious issue.

CARDONA: She could have chosen something else, like to Stephen's point, if 0she had chosen literacy, if she had chosen --

[19:45:03] MOORE: She has done stuff -- she does have literacy projects. She does have projects fighting hunger and all you all talk about --

(CROSSTALK)

MOORE: All you talk about on CNN is how horrible bullying is, so she takes on the bullying issue and you --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: She's not taking on the bullying issue. The ultimate bully, Steve. I mean, it's impossible to take that seriously.

CARDONA: Not in a credible way.

MOORE: She knows a lot about bullying because she's been bullied by the media.

BURNETT: How can you say that bullying should be her issue and you want her to stand by her man when her man is the biggest bully in the country?

MOORE: OK. He can be a bully too.

But look, my point is, you know, why is the press beating up on her all the time when she's been a great first lady? I mean, she is not a Hillary Clinton. You say you want her to play a bigger role.

I don't think the American people want the first lady to be in the White House, you know, trying to rewrite our healthcare system. They want her to be a dignified woman who is behind her husband and helps him in a way to make the country run better and I think she's done that.

CARDONA: I think people are expecting the first lady to use the bully pulpit to actually help others who can't help themselves.

MOORE: She does that, though. That's the thing. 9

CARDONA: But when you talk about her key initiative being cyber bullying and she's the wife of Donald Trump and she can't even keep him from cyberbullying, I've talked to mothers whose kids have actually suffered from cyber bullies and they think what she has done has actually been deficient and has been a detriment to the issue of cyberbullying because nobody takes her seriously and that is a problem. If she wanted to take on literacy, Stephen, maybe you should advise her that that should be her key initiative.

MOORE: I think you're being totally hypocritical. You keep talking -- liberals keep talking about, you know, bullying being one of the biggest problems in our schools and then she initiates a program to try to alleviate that and you're blaming her for it. I mean, I just don't even understand the logic of that, frankly.

CARDONA: Because I think it's having a tin ear and not really understanding what the effect of somebody like her husband has on the country and on society.

BURNETT: There's so many complex layers to all of it, Steve. When you say stand by your man, I'm assuming you'd say the same thing if the roles were reversed, you'd want a man to stand by his woman. I'm going to assume that.

MOORE: Isn't that what a wife should do and a husband should do the same?

BURNETT: He's had all these affairs, it's complicated and it's complicated for a lot of people and maybe that's what we're seeing in the polls.

MOORE: I want my wife to stand by me.

BURNETT: I hope you stand by her just the same. That's all I mean saying. It shouldn't be a gender thing. Thank you.

And next, what is life going to be like for Michael Cohen behind bars? Like this?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's dorm style living like you're going to college.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Oh, my gosh. Have you guys seen colleges lately? That's going to be pretty nice.

Plus, is Jose Canseco really making a pitch to become Trump's chief of staff?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:51:37] BURNETT: Tonight, a castle behind bars, a revealing look inside the prison where Michael Cohen could be spending years of his life behind bars.

Jason Carroll is OUTFRONT.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From the outside, the federal correction institution at Otisville has all the markings one might expect to see at a prison, the barbed wire, the guard towers, but there's a reason Otisville has been called a castle behind bars, why "Forbes" magazine ranked it one of America's ten cushiest prisons.

Bernie Madoff wanted to go there. Disgraced ImClone founder Sam Waksal did spend time there. Prison experts say it's a club fed if there ever was one.

LARRY LEVINE, FORMER FEDERAL INMATE: It's like a boys camp. It's like when you're a kid and you're going to summer camp. They don't lock the doors. There's no fences there. You know, the inmates are really killing time is what it comes down to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Greed is good.

CARROLL: It's the prison where fictional character Gordon Gecko played by Michael Douglas did his time for white collar crimes in a 2010 film "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 1993, he was sent off to --

CARROLL: if Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney, gets his way, it's where he would like to serve out his three-year sentence for, among other things, campaign finance violations. If approved, Cohen will leave his posh Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan and head about 70 miles northwest to Otisville, New York.

What will Cohen find at the medium security institution? According to its website, Otisville houses 840 inmates. That's considered pretty small by prison standards. It includes a detention center and a minimum security satellite camp which is where legal experts say white-collar first time offenders such as Cohen usually end up.

FRANK J. RICCIO II, CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER: It's dorm style living like you're going to college. The activities that are available are almost too numerous to count. There's two libraries. There's a leisure library and a law library. You also have many, many sports activities.

CARROLL: Cohen would be free to spend his day playing tennis or bocce ball. Waksal once said his time there felt like a bad sleep away camp in the Catskills.

RICCIO: The food, as I understand, is also not that bad either if you like diner food, then you're going to like the food at Otisville. It's not what is commonly referred to as prison food.

CARROLL: Our check of the commissary menu shows choices of herbal tea, turkey bacon, raw almonds if dry roasted are not to one's liking and because it's close to New York with its large Jewish population, there are kosher options, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish.

ART RODERICK, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: They have actually a rabbi at the facility to administer the Jewish faith.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL: And despite the judge's recommendation to have this man, Cohen, serve at Otisville, it really is going to be up to the bureau of prisons to ultimately make that decision, but we've also found out that the Bureau of Prisons ends up siding, usually, with the judge's recommendation about 75 percent of the time. So, the chances look pretty good this is where he's going to serve.

BURNETT: The leisure library, the law library, bocce ball. Raw almonds.

[19:55:05] CARROLL: Still prison but if you got to go, seems like that's the place to do it.

BURNETT: Your tax dollars at work.

CARROLL: At hard work.

BURNETT: Next, Jeanne Moos with some ideas for Trump's chief of staff problem.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: President Trump still needs that chief of staff, so we put Jeanne on the hunt for some ideas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As the list of finalists to replace John Kelly shrinks --

TRUMP: Five people, really good ones.

MOOS: The jokes expand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump found out yesterday that his second pick, Colonel Sanders, isn't available.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So many Americans don't want this job. Trump might have to let a Mexican do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If anybody here wants to be President Trump's chief of staff, just raise your hand and the job is yours.

MOOS: Sure, there have been volunteers. Former baseball slugger Jose Canseco pitched himself for a job in the tweet but probably won't get telling little buddy the president, worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday, I will buff you up, daily workouts.

British commentator Piers Morgan also applied, promising that if the president is doing something dumb, he would tell him.

PIERS MORGAN, BRITISH COMMENTATOR: And if you continue to do it, you're an idiot. Don't do it. MOOS: Given the tone of the coverage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He can't even get people on the D-list.

MOOS: No wonder the president is described as super pissed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Apparently, he crossed his arms so hard they went all the way around.

MOOS: He's been getting lots of unsolicited advice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, he should try me harmony.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have one for him, Anderson. Craigslist.

MOOS: But the president says --

TRUMP: We have a lot of people that want the job, chief of staff.

MOOS: Whoa. Discrimination. Why limit it to people?

Obama's official photographer suggested Bo the dog. He's smart, doesn't leak in the Oval, has never talked to a Russian.

And a "New Yorker" cartoon recommended the central park mandarin duck noting his approval ratings are through the roof.

We did find one eager applicant using the Twitter name No One. No One says, I want to be Trump's White House chief of staff. That takes guts, considering what's happened to the previous chiefs hired by the magician in the White House.

Jeanne Moos, CNN.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Abracadabra.

MOOS: New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BURNETT: All right. Thank you so much for joining us.

As always, "AC360" begins right now.