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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

7-Year-Old Migrant Dies in U.S. Custody; Legal Trouble Closing in on Trump?; Special Counsel Slams Michael Flynn's Criticism of FBI Interview; Cohen: Trump Knew It Was Wrong to Make Hush Payments. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 14, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Robert Mueller just told General Flynn and his attorneys to cut the crap about being coaxed into lying by the FBI.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, the special counsel slams General Michael Flynn for criticizing the way his FBI interview went down, saying, hey, General, you lied. Live with it. What might this mean for how long General Flynn could go away?

Parting shots. Donald Trump's former fixer before he heads to prison unloading on the president of the United States and promising he will not go down as the villain in this story.

And heartbreak on the border. A 7-year-old girl dies after the torturous journey north. What the Trump administration is saying today about this devastating tragedy.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news. A brand-new court filing just released. Special counsel Robert Mueller's team slamming former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and the suggestion from Flynn's lawyers that Flynn only lied because he was caught off-guard when two FBI agents approached him.

The special counsel laying out in the sentencing memo response -- quote -- "A sitting national security adviser, former head of an intelligence agency, retired lieutenant general and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents. He does not need to be warned it is a crime to lie to federal agents, but know the importance of telling them the truth."

The special counsel team also emphasizing that before meeting with the FBI agents, Flynn had already been lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador for weeks, lying to "The Washington Post," lying to Vice President Pence, lying to Chief of Staff Priebus, lying to Press Secretary Spicer.

He was -- quote -- "committed to his false story."

CNN's Pamela Brown joins me now.

Pamela, Mueller's team taking a dig back at Flynn here.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake.

The special counsel punching back at Michael Flynn's lawyer's assertion that the former national security adviser wasn't appropriately warned about the repercussions of lying to the FBI. In this new filing just released, Mueller's team says Flynn chose to lie weeks before the FBI interviewed him by claiming he did not discuss sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Mueller's team making the case his statements were -- quote -- "voluntary and intentional" and noted the FBI gave him multiple opportunities in their interview with him to correct his false statements, and he only did so once the FBI used the exact language Flynn had used in his conversation with Kislyak from that phone call.

Now, while the filing notes the FBI didn't think Flynn was being intentionally deceptive, it does say he should know better than to lie to the FBI, and that that is a crime, and that he shouldn't have to be warned about it.

What stuck out to me, Jake, is that the documents also say Flynn told then Deputy Director Andy McCabe over the phone just before the FBI interview that McCabe probably knew what he said in the conversation with Kislyak. So it's unclear why Flynn would then proceed to make false statements in his FBI interview if he thought they knew the truth and what he actually said.

TAPPER: Yes. Very bizarre. So much bizarre about this lie from Flynn.

And, Pamela, some stunning new details also here about the interactions involved, including an appearance by President Trump.

BROWN: Yes, that's right.

The filings provide colorful details, Jake, from the day Flynn was interviewed by the FBI in his office. The White House didn't seem to take notice that the FBI was there to interview him, and at one point they even walked by President Trump together as he was discussing art placement in the White House.

But Flynn chose to not introduce the agents to him or anyone else. So no one in the White House seemed to take notice this was happening. Now, the interviewing agents' impression of Flynn in these documents is that he was relaxed and jocular, as well as bright, but not profoundly sophisticated. That's a direct quote.

And the agent even noted that Flynn was so talkative, that the agents wondered whether he didn't have more important things to do as the national security adviser. And, at one point, Jake, the documents say when the FBI told acting Attorney General Sally Yates that Flynn would be interviewed, she was pissed, but didn't explain why that was.

So while these filings certainly provide many new insights and a rare inside look behind the scenes, there are still many redactions and many unanswered questions, Jake.

TAPPER: Number one unanswered question, of course, and we still don't know, why? Why did he lie about this? The incoming national security adviser is, of course, allowed to talk to the Russian ambassador.

(CROSSTALK)

[16:05:03]

BROWN: Right. And I just on that note, what is sort of peculiar here and raises questions is, why did he lie, but that the FBI initially, Jake, didn't seem to think that he was being intentionally deceptive, said he didn't parse his words, he didn't hesitate.

They didn't think that he was being intentionally deceptive. So then what happened after that? Why did the feds decide to go after him after that? And, as we know, he did plead guilty to lying to the FBI. So that's also sort of a strange piece of this story.

TAPPER: All right. Very interesting. Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with my experts.

I guess one of the biggest questions I have is, Mueller had already said they want to give him the lowest end of the scale when it comes to punishment, which means potentially no jail time at all. Then his lawyers do this. And Mueller still in this document and the response is still saying, we still recommend on the lowest end of the scale, as long as Flynn remains repentant for what he did.

Why would the lawyers even do this then? I mean...

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSOCIATE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Flynn's lawyers, you know, they probably overplayed their hand a bit here.

I think they were trying to compare him to Papadopoulos and others who had counsel there, the idea being he's kind of, you know, an innocent lamb in some way. And with this particular judge, Judge Emmet Sullivan, I don't think that would fly no matter what, let alone under these circumstances.

So I think the idea was, listen, be lenient with him because he isn't as bad as the others. And then there was this paragraph in 302, the FBI's memorialization of the actual interview, that suggests that maybe they thought about warning him, but didn't, and then buzz about entrapment happens, we're not even close to entrapment.

That requires not only inducement by the government to commit a crime, but also a lack of predisposition to commit a crime. And here we have not only Mr. Flynn making misrepresentations publicly, but we also know he made misrepresentations on his filing forms with respect to his communications and contact with Turkey.

This is not a guy who for whatever reason after three decades of service has a problem with not telling a lie.

TAPPER: And, Senator Turner, one of the things I thought was interesting reading this, they talk about then Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe talking about how they really did everything they could to have it so that he wasn't lying, so that when he said he didn't remember something that he said, he and McCabe and other FBI guys would use the exact language that Flynn had used in his conversation with the Russian ambassador, so as to refresh his memory, get him to say what was truthful.

And Flynn still didn't correct his false statements. And I thought to myself, I don't think the FBI does that for most people.

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. They don't.

His positioning gave him that. His career of having had credibility really I think gave them in this investigation to try to get him to tell the truth. But if you're lying in the beginning, you will be lying in the end.

And this is very indicative of all of the president's men so far that have been flushed out in terms of this, that they are absolutely -- they lie. And it's really unfortunate that he would go down this path. But Mueller made it very clear that you were not set up, that you knew exactly what you were doing, that you lied to the media. You lied to the transition team. You lied to the president -- vice president-elect.

You were lying, and you knew exactly what you were doing. So all of the president's men so far have been caught in lies.

TAPPER: And that remains the big mystery, why? What is he hiding?

And why do we still not know?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's clear he thought he could have gotten away with it or he wouldn't have done it.

But why is the million-dollar question right now. But I thought it was interesting to the extent that Mueller went into the fact like not only should you know better, because of X, Y, Z. He also said -- there's a line in there that said he was asked. Flynn was asked, do you want the White House counsel to sit in? He's like, no, we're good.

And so just the level of detail that's in this document is really illuminating, you know, for those of us playing at home.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And let's think about like the broader context in which this is all happening, which is as more and more information is coming out regarding the Mueller investigation, as well as the side investigations with the Southern District of New York and Michael Cohen, there's more and more doubt being placed out there.

For perhaps folks maybe a year-and-a-half ago, you know, that FOX News polling a year-and-a-half ago showed a majority of voters didn't really think that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia. But that majority has now shrunken over time, as more and more people now respond to the same poll question and go, I don't know.

There hasn't been a dramatic increase in people saying, yes, I think collusion definitely happened. But out in the public, there is more and more, yes, I don't know, which is kind of what we're saying about, why would Flynn have lied? There's just still these big question marks floating in the air, and this just adds to that.

KUCINICH: But he -- the president hesitated firing him. It was only when Mike Pence -- it was very clear that he had lied to Mike Pence, the president felt compelled to let him go.

[16:10:02]

TAPPER: And when it was public.

KUCINICH: When it was public, exactly.

TAPPER: When it was public he had lied to Pence.

KUCINICH: Right, and he made Pence look foolish.

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: Arrogance, Jake, I think, and thinking you're above the law in some ways.

His positioning in some ways throughout the years in government, I think, gave him that false sense that he is above it all.

KUCINICH: This is a man who said to lock her up.

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: Right.

WEHLE: And what he lied about, the conversations around sanctions, I think, gets to potential motive around all of the lies that we're seeing across so many people in connection with this investigation.

Why was so much covered up, if it was OK? If there was a quid pro quo, if there was some kind of deal between the Trump team and the Russians, listen, we will do something for you if you do something for us, that might be a reason to not be honest about the sanctions piece.

I also want to make one other point about a number of these filings, not just this one, but also what was filed in the Southern District of New York with respect to Mr. Cohen, which is it seems like the Justice Department is using these filings as a speaking point to the American public, like, listen, we have been under assault as somehow, you know, corrupt and not with the president, and that these aren't real crimes.

And it's really amazing to see them use this almost like their own bully pulpit to explain, listen, no, this is the facts and this is the law, and we're doing...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Mueller says, this was a serious crime that Flynn committed.

Everyone, stick around.

Michael Cohen refusing to go quietly when it comes to what he knows about President Trump's involvement in the hush money payments and who knows what else.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:39] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with our politics lead now.

President Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer may be going to prison, but he's not going quietly. For the first time since being sentenced to three years in prison, Michael Cohen spoke extensively about the hush money payments, about President Trump's involvement and President Trump, for whom he worked for more than a decade, being a liar. Cohen reaffirmed that then candidate Donald Trump directed him to make the payments to silence two women about alleged affairs, and critically, that Trump knew it was wrong and that he did it to protect his presidential campaign prospects.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: He was trying to hide what you were doing, correct?

MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORER ATTORNEY: Correct.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And he knew it was wrong?

COHEN: Of course.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And he was doing that to help his election?

COHEN: You have to remember, at what point in time that this matter came about, two weeks or so before the election, post the Billy Bush comments. So, yes. He was very concerned about how this would affect the election. STEPHANOPOULOS: To help his campaign.

COHEN: To help him and the campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Cohen also addressing criticism, notably were the president, that he's a liar, claiming that special counsel Mueller has a, quote, substantial amount of information that proves he is telling the truth.

CNN's M.J. Lee joins me now.

And, M.J., do we have any idea what corroborating evidence Mueller has that proves Cohen is telling the truth?

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we do know, Jake, Michael Cohen has been helpful to Robert Mueller, the special counsel's office has said that Cohen has provided credible information for their Russia investigation. And we also know, of course, that he's been assisting the southern district of New York, as well, about the secret payments to women. This, of course, is such a drastically different Michael Cohen from the guy who used to be one of Trump's most loyal confidantes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COHEN: I am done being loyal to president Trump.

LEE (voice-over): He spilled his secrets to prosecutors. He begged for mercy from a judge, and now, Michael Cohen speaking to the American people.

COHEN: And I will not be the villain, as I told you once before. I will not be the villain of his story.

LEE: President Trump's former fixer and personal lawyer opening up for the first time since he was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday. In an interview with ABC, the 52-year-old convicted villain still agonizing over what he says was the toughest day of his life.

COHEN: I have to be honest, it's been very rough.

LEE: Cohen pleaded guilty to numerous crimes, including tax evasion and making false statements to a bank. But it was his crimes involving the now infamous hush payments to two women that have directly implicated the president of the United States.

Trump lashing out on Twitter this week, saying he never directed Cohen to break the law. But Cohen, now telling a different story.

COHEN: He directed me to make the payments.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And he knew it was wrong?

COHEN: Of course. LEE: Saying the order to pay off former playboy model Karen McDougal

and silence her before the 2016 election came directly from his boss.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump.

LEE: The president's former fixer also addressing Trump's biggest headache, the Russia investigation.

Cohen has already met with special counsel Robert Mueller's office for more than 70 hours, offering them information about his contacts with Russians and conversations with people close to the White House.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The special counsel did say that you were doing your best to tell the truth about everything related to their investigation, everything related to Russia. Do you think President Trump is telling the truth about that?

COHEN: No.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's a big statement.

LEE: And he says he's not done talking.

COHEN: If they want me, I'm here. And I'm willing to answer whatever additional questions that they may have for me.

LEE: Cohen says the person in the White House now is not the Trump he once admired.

COHEN: I think the pressure of the job is much more than what he thought it was going to be.

LEE: Cohen reports to prison in March, and will pay more than $1 million in restitution, stunning fall from grace for a man who says he was loyal to Trump for too long.

COHEN: The man doesn't tell the truth. And it's sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEE: Now, Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, spoke to CNN. He says that Trump never lied about the Russia investigation and that Michael Cohen is not someone who can be trusted -- Jake.

[16:20:04] TAPPER: OK. Well, Michael Cohen, perhaps, isn't somebody who can be trusted, but everybody has seen President Trump has lied about the Russia investigation, and Stormy Daniels and everything else.

Thank you so much, M.J. Lee.

Let's talk about this. So Michael Cohen said it's sad President Trump doesn't tell the truth. And the truth of the matter is that Michael Cohen knows a lot. He knows a lot about what's going on. So take a listen to this exchange, which gives a little bit of a tease of where this cooperation agreement he has with the special counsel and potentially with the Southern District, although not yet, might lead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: How does this end for Donald Trump?

COHEN: You know, that sort of gets into the whole investigation right now between special counsel's office, the attorney general's office, you also have the Southern District of New York. I don't want to jeopardize any of their investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, no answer specifically, but I guess the idea is, he is really open for business, Michael Cohen, in terms of his cooperation and who he's willing to talk to.

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSOCIATE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL IN THE WHITEWATER INVESTIGATION: Yes. It's unusual for him to get a sentence before he's fully cooperated. So my expectation is that Mueller and the Southern District have a lot more information besides just this particular witness.

He is a gangster, right, and he is, as you mentioned -- he's a liar. He's a criminal. And so, he is contrite at this point. He does know where the bodies are buried. He knows a lot --

TAPPER: Figuratively, we should say.

WEHLE: Yes, figuratively, so to speak. Yes.

And so -- and the other thing I think is pretty significant, he said he's going to tell the story to the American public once the Mueller probe is over. So that's a significant move we're going to hear, at least from him, what he knows and when he knew it.

TAPPER: So, Kristen -- go ahead.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I was going to say, the other thing that we've heard, some of the recordings that Michael Cohen has made. So, we don't even really have to take his word for it in some of these cases, because you hear the president on some of these recordings. And apparently there are more. So he has information that corroborates the story he's telling now, or at least parts of it that -- some of which is public.

WEHLE: And David Pecker is cooperating, too, from the "National Enquirer". So, there are other people, yes.

TAPPER: And, Kristen, Rudy Giuliani, his response to some of this, was that all of the hush money payments are overblown, et cetera. He told "The Daily Beast", quote, nobody got killed. Nobody got robbed. This is just not a big crime. I think in two weeks, they'll start with parking tickets that haven't been paid. That's -- I mean, I'm old enough to remember when Rudy Giuliani was

part of the broken windows theory, small crimes lead to big crimes and everything needs to be not tolerated. But this is quite a shocking statement.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST & POLLSTER: What I think is underlying a little bit of this is that one, what's being alleged is a violation of campaign finance law in part. That there were funds used to do something to influence the campaign. Any time you spend money to influence a campaign, if you are a campaign, you have to disclose that you've spent it, et cetera.

But conservatives have always been, like -- been a little more skeptical of campaign finance law generally. And so maybe he thinks that from a political perspective, sort of making the case that, look, our campaign finance system is screwed up, on those grounds, this isn't a big deal. But when it comes to something like the "National Enquirer", these catch and kill stories may not be the only thing going on there. The cover of the "National Enquirer" for the entire time Trump was running for president was covered in headlines that were helpful to his campaign.

Is there more there? So --

KUCINICH: Oh, yes. Hillary basically was on death's door.

ANDERSON: And an awful lot of things the "National Enquirer" did that were very helpful to Donald Trump. I expect we'll learn more about that.

NINA TURNER, FORMER OHIO STATE SENATOR: And the cover-up is always worse than the crime here. They did not have to cover this up. But they --

TAPPER: Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

TURNER: Right. They didn't have to do it, but they did it anyway. And the fact that Michael Cohen has had an epiphany, it's nothing like federal charges to make you see the light. He said he feels freer, so the truth shall set you free.

And in this case, he benefited from the lies, years and years -- for decades working for the president, but for now he is free because he's telling the truth. But, again, he worked for the lying king. The chief of lies is the president, and Cohen, Flynn, Manafort, you name it, all of them are tangled up in these webs of lies. So Cohen benefited from all of this.

TAPPER: I should point out, Kristen, that Rudy Giuliani has since tweeted, correction. I didn't say payments were not a big crime. I have consistently said that the Daniels and McDougal payments are not crimes. By the way, an acknowledgment that there were Daniels and Karen McDougal payments.

KUCINICH: And I stand by that quote.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Of course, of course, you do.

WEHLE: And other Republicans, Chris Christie, Orrin Hatch, retracted his claim this wasn't a problem. I think other parts of the Republican Party are acknowledging this is serious.

TAPPER: Crime is bad. Everyone stick around.

The Trump campaign, the Trump transition, the Trump inaugural committee, the Trump administration, the Trump Organization -- is there any aspect of President Trump's life that is not currently under investigation?

[16:25:01] Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: This just in. Yet another potential conflict of interest for President Trump. According to "ProPublica", the Trump inauguration committee paid the Trump Organization for rooms and meals and event space at the Trump international hotel. It also raised internal questions about whether the rates, which Ivanka Trump was involved in negotiating, were fair.