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Cohen Says He's Telling the Truth; Cohen Says Trump Knew Payments were Wrong; Trump Changes Story. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 14, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "AC 360": You can donate from your laptop, your tablet, or your phone. Just go to Your donation in any amount will help them help others. Thanks.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And go to because the nominations for 2019 are open now.

Thanks so much for joining me, everybody. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Michael Cohen says his long time boss is lying again. Cohen says then candidate Trump ordered hush money payments late in the 2016 campaign and he says he knew the scheme broke campaign finance laws.

Plus, a little Friday fun. A brand new CNN poll ranks the 2020 Democratic contenders. Spoiler alert, Joe Biden tops the field. But, get a pen, can you guess the order from there?

And, holiday season smiles from the president's first and second White House chief of staff. He's close to picking a third.


PRESET: We're interviewing people now for chief of staff. Five people. Really good ones. Terrific people. Mostly well-known, but terrific people.


KING: We begin the hour, though, with new details from the president's long time hatchet man and new reporting on the president's deepening legal troubles. Sources confirm now to CNN that federal prosecutors in New York are investigating the Trump inaugural committee for possible financial abuses connected to more than $100 million in donations. The reporting makes plain -- more plain the gravity of the president's legal woes.

We now have confirmation, through court documents and through CNN reporting, that the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, the Trump inauguration, the Trump administration, the Trump Organization, and the Trump Foundation are all under investigation. These investigations spread across all levels of government and span a variety of alleged illegal acts, including possible campaign finance violations, alleged accounting fraud, tax fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents.

Today, Michael Cohen said he spent a decade lying for the president. The president and the White House say because Cohen admits to that, admits to lying, and because he -- a court convicted him of lying, his words should carry little weight. But Cohen says you should believe him now. Part of his evidence, he says the special counsel is now corroborating his latest stories.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: You pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.


STEPHANOPOULOS: So why should we believe you now?

COHEN: Because the special counsel stated emphatically that the information that I gave to them is credible and helpful. There's a substantial amount of information that they possess that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth.


KING: CNN's MJ Lee is in New York.

MJ, why did Michael Cohen make this decision, as he awaits going to prison, to speak out now?

MJ LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it's very, very clear that Michael Cohen wants to try to end up on the right side of history, but that journey for him of winning back his credibility is obviously going to be a very long one. But he made it clear that he wants to start telling the truth. And another big piece of it is that he wants to try to do right by his family, who he says he knows he has disappointed very much with all of this that has happened.

And I think what was sort of striking in watching this interview on ABC is that he does sound a little more realistic when it comes to this warped and unhealthy relationship that he clearly had with Donald Trump, his former boss. He says, and he acknowledges, that he genuinely had a good time working at the Trump Organization. He says that Donald Trump was somebody that he really did admire. And he says that in the course of working for Donald Trump, he did become blindly loyal to his boss and he says that that was his excuse for why he ended up doing the things that ended up getting him in trouble.

But there are obviously two parts of this. There is a personal evolution of Michael Cohen, but then there are also the real world ramifications for what this means for the president of the United States. And I don't think we should lose sight of what it is that Michael Cohen is alleging about the president. He is saying, in the plainest English possible, he's saying that Donald Trump lied. He says he lied about the hush payments to the woman and he also says that he is lying about the Russia investigation.

And, obviously, what we don't know yet to the full extent is what exactly he has told the investigators and what more he might have to say in the coming months.


KING: Excellent points at the end.

MJ Lee, live for us in New York.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Lisa Lerer of "The New York Times," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Seung Min Kim with "The Washington Post," and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

The last point MJ makes is the key one in the sense that the special counsel and the Southern District of New York have these investigations, or other investigations as well, the Trump Foundation, the Trump Organization, Michael Cohen's a piece of all of this over the last decade. But what he says now is, look, this -- I'm telling the truth now, my latest stories, and the special counsel corroborates all of this. So it's not just me. They have other witnesses, they have other documents about felony campaign finance violations. The Southern District of New York says. And one of the things we know Cohen knows something about, that the president says he knew nothing about, is the Trump Tower meeting with Don Junior. Michael Cohen potentially is a giant witness here.

[12:05:25] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No question. And, you know, just when we take stock of everything that's happened this week, I think that we cannot say enough how much Michael Cohen, a, loved Donald Trump, did everything for Donald Trump, sat about 20 feet or so from his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower. Michael Cohen knows a lot, but he's not the only one who knows a lot. So I think what we have learned this week also, the Trump Organization and what this investigation in the Southern District of New York is revealing or is looking at is much more potentially damaging for this president as far as what we know right now than the Mueller probe down here in Washington.

So I think that the -- who Trump is not talking -- who the president's not talking about this week I think it also interesting, David Pecker, a name who is not that much of a household name, a very close friend of the president, the head of AMI, the parent company of "The National Enquirer." His cooperation withed the government is fascinating. And why hasn't the president said anything about him at all so far?

KING: Right, he's nervous about that. Pecker cooperating. This chief financial officer of the Trump Organization has also been interviewed. So Michael Cohen is not alone here.

ZELENY: Right. KING: Or at least whether it's the Southern District of New York or the other investigations, they have other witnesses to check, triple check and quadruple check what anybody is telling them, including Michael Cohen.

To the key part, the Russia investigation, the stakes there could get steeper if the business dealings continue late in the campaign. If the president did know about the Trump Tower meeting, then his lies are exposed. We don't know that yet.

What we do know from the Southern District of New York is, they think they have a clear cut felony campaign finance case against Cohen and against the president. The president says, no, no, no, no, no, Michael Cohen was my lawyer. I did what he said. If there's any illegality, blame the lawyer. Here's Michael Cohen's explanation.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me tell you, I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own. He's a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing. That's why you pay them a lot of money, et cetera, et cetera. He is a lawyer. He represents a client. I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong. And he understands that.


KING: So that's the president. George Stephanopoulos asked Michael Cohen about that. Were you just a bad lawyer?


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: He's saying very clearly that he never directed you to do anything wrong. Is that true?

MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER ATTORNEY: I don't think there's anybody that believes that. First of all, nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He was trying to hide what you were doing, correct/

COHEN: Correct.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And he knew it was wrong?

COHEN: Of course.

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

COHEN: He -- 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: It is that last part, when reminded of the chronology, a lot of people around the president use the John Edwards defense. Forget about it. Just forget about it. The "Access Hollywood" tape had come out. You had the president on tape saying things that, if true, amount to felony sexual assault. And his views on women. And then Stormy Daniels comes up and they, boom, make it go away. That part there is where you get very damning, not only about Michael Cohen's calm testimony there about, no, he knew. He knew it was wrong. He knew it was illegal. And then connecting the dots to what would make it a campaign finance violation. This is about the campaign, not about saving Melania or the president from embarrassment.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And you makes such a good point about the shifting explanations from the president. Remember that moment on Air Force One back in April where he said he had no knowledge of these payments whatsoever and all of the movements of the explanations that we've seen since then? And that is why it's becoming so much more difficult for -- especially people on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats. I mean Democrats never really bought the explanations anyway, but particularly his Republican allies are having a much more difficult time kind of accepting these explanations. I had a lot of interesting conversations with senators this week about the president's legal woes and his allies will point out that, look, Michael Cohen is also a proven liar, so how do you trust him? But we're at a point now where he is talking to the prosecutors and giving him everything he knows. And there's no doubt that that is dangerous to the president.

KING: And we'll come back to that point in a minute. But to your point about that. So the Republican Party's rational, having lived through the Clinton impeachment, I covered the White House in those days. The Republican Party's new rational is becoming the party of see no evil in the sense that they're all liars. Oh, so they're OK -- they're OK with that. It's just a whole bunch of liars.

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think the problem here is it's not just about lying, right? Like, I thought one of the most interesting things that came out was -- this week was a detail in a story about this other investigation into the inaugural committee and whether foreign, you know, foreign governments, foreign entities were sort of sneaking money into the inaugural committee and donations.

[12:10:13] And there was an interesting detail in those reports, and that was that there was an audio tape of Michael Cohen talking to a woman at the inaugural committee that was pulled out during the raid of his home and his office and his hotel room. So this isn't just about who's saying what to the investigators. There is -- there is tape. There's audio tape of Donald Trump talking about these payments. There's documents. There's tons of things. And we don't even -- we, of course, don't know what the prosecutors have, but we know that they probably have alive (ph) this new investigation as any evidence.

KING: And to that point, again, in the political debate, the president manages to keep the support of his base, manages to whether it's fear or whatever, keep Republicans trying to run away and say, don't ask me these questions anymore. But every court filing has corroboration, has documentation. And even the president's supporters, look at what Mueller has put into court documents and say, these guys are good.

To the point here, this is Michael Cohen talking about, yes, sure, I've told some lies along the way, but he says, so has my former boss.


MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER ATTORNEY: He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth. And here is the truth. The people of the United States of America, the people of the world don't believe what he's saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it's sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.


KING: Now, he's trying to essentially say this is more on Trump than on him. He is no saint here.


KING: And nobody should -- nobody should -- we should not be building a statue to Michael Cohen. His non-Trump-related crimes are pretty serious. The ones that have nothing to do with the president are pretty serious, which is why he's going to jail. But if you're the president of the United States and you've run this loyal, private business where you say jump, people say how high. Now you're the president of the United States, and like we said, the Trump inauguration, the Trump campaign, the Trump White House, the Trump Foundation, everything just about with the word Trump on it is under investigation and a guy who you mentioned was that close to you and there are others.

HENDERSON: Yes. Yes, there are others. And if you look at him in that interview with Harris Faulkner (ph), Trump, he seemed so agitated. I mean he almost seemed like he was someone who was on the witness stand sort of arguing with a judge or arguing with this prosecution. And then you have Cohen here who, again, is no saint, seeming to unburden himself, seeming to be, in some ways, relieved. He's obviously going to go to jail for some of the crimes he committed he says in connection with Donald Trump. But the president himself doesn't seem to be doing himself any favors. Even in that interview, he was all over the place, saying at one point he was -- that Cohen was a low level PR guy, but he was also somebody who was a lawyer powerful enough to dupe the president -- or candidate into doing this. So we'll see where this goes in terms of his own defense, which, so far, hasn't been very effective.

KING: He did try to -- I say he tried coffee boy.

HENDERSON: Yes, coffee boy. Yes. Yes.

KING: For a second, but that -- that, to borrow a term from another era, that dog won't hunt, just because of Michael Cohen's proximity and the work he did for the president.

More of this as we continue.

Up next, the president's many attempts to explain why his story keeps changing.


[12:17:19] KING: Welcome back.

The president says Michael Cohen is a liar, not to be believed. But it's important to remember, the more information we learned from court filings and from our reporting, the more the president's story changes. Here, just a few examples.

On the question of whether any campaign workers had any ties or meeting with Russians back in 2017, quote, no person I deal with does. Now that we know of at least 16 such contacts, this from the president just this week. Well, it's peanut stuff. On any business deals he had in Russia. 2017, no deals, no loans, no nothing. Last month, after reports Trump Tower Moscow conversations went on well into the campaign, quote, why should I lose lots of opportunities? On the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer, the first statement signed off on by the president said it was about adoption of Russian children. But after reporting, that, no, it was about obtaining damaging information on Hillary Clinton Trump tweeted, most politicians would have gone.

And then the hush payments handled by his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. Back in April Trump said he didn't know about the payment or where Michael Cohen got the money. Later Trump tweeted that he did have Cohen on a retainer for matters that had, quote, nothing to do with the campaign. Yesterday, the president tweeting, I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and is supposed to know the law.

CNN legal analyst Carrie Cordero joins the conversation.

He wouldn't be a very good client. What -- in the court of public opinion, I understand, as the facts change, the president is trying to manage the political environment. In a court of law, if you were making a case, how does that affect what you're doing, in terms of the constantly changing, moving the goal posts, changing your story?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sure. I mean in the -- in the public discussion, we don't need Michael Cohen to tell us that the president lies. We know that. It's well documented. There's been so many things that he says and puts out public, the information he puts out publically that turns out to be false or is false, obviously, when he says it.

The difference is, is what, for example, are the fact that he put in the written answers, that the president put in his written answers to the special counsel's office. That's an example of something that's under oath that can be proven or disproven by other testimony, other evidence, that the special counsel's office has and whether or not any of these other investigations into financial irregularity, into campaign finance violations, for example, when he -- whether any of that involves statements by the president in some under oath or official government capacity where he's providing information, that's where he potentially is exposed to legal jeopardy.

KING: Gets into legal jeopardy. And Ken Starr argued the question is, will Robert Mueller argue that false public statements can also be part of obstruction. If you're lying to the American people, you're trying to change the narrative. We'll see how that one plays out.

[12:20:03] Let's listen to the president. This is the president speaking to Fox News yesterday, talking about the Michael Cohen case. He says, this is not a serious criminal matter. They're just trying to embarrass me.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What happed 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 changes on. They're not criminal charges.


KING: To the point Carrie was just making, they are criminal charges. They are criminal charges. They're laid out in a document changing Michael Cohen, but individual number one, we could have an argument if you want, should any campaign finance violation be a felony. But the Southern District of New York, meaning the Trump Justice Department, says in a court filing, these are felony criminal charges.

ZELENY: No question. So the president obviously, I think, he's acting on the -- all the information he's heard from his lawyers, because we've seen, you know, an amazing consistency this week. Up on Capitol Hill from Republicans as well. No, these aren't real violations. Rudy Giuliani was saying, oh, you know, some members of Congress have done this same thing and we hear a lot of talk about the John Edwards case. As you said earlier, irrelevant. That is not the situation here.

But I think the president there is saying simply trying to embarrass me. He didn't say it didn't happen.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: That saying is a message to his base, I think. They're just all trying to embarrass me. So, you know --

KING: Well, it worked for Bill Clinton in a sense that this --


KING: Why are we going here? Why are we going into this personal stuff?

ZELENY: Right.

KING: It did help Bill Clinton keep some support. But to your point about -- this is again -- it's a political

conversation, but I would love the lawyer's opinion. This is Rudy Giuliani, once America's mayor, before that a prosecutor for the federal government. Nobody got killed. Nobody got robbed. This was not a big crime, Giuliani told "The Daily Beast" on Wednesday. He added sardonically, I think in two weeks they'll start with parking tickets that haven't been paid.

I'm sorry, this is the -- number one, it's his former law partner, who happens to be the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, who's bringing these cases. But what is the point of that? Essentially that -- so the president is accused of crimes, but nobody got killed. The president, his national security adviser's going jail. His long time lawyer is going to jail. His campaign chairman is going to jail. His deputy campaign chairman cut a plea with prosecutors. But nobody got killed. That's OK?

CORDERO: Here's the argument that I think the president's team is not articulating well. And this is when they drag in the Edwards case or when Republicans on The Hill try to convey that they think this maybe isn't as important as other things. There actually is not a strong precedent in terms of actual cases that have been prosecuted of hush money payments to women constituting campaign finance violations. The Justice Department is saying that they are interpreting campaign finance law to be that and they would actually have to take a case forward in order to prove that.

But there actually is not a strong precedent for these types of cases to be prosecuted. That's not to say -- that's not to minimize the way that the Justice Department is prosecuting this case because they can only bring cases that they actually legitimately believe would succeed on the merit and so that would be the standard by which they charge Michael Cohen.

I think the bigger political question is, would Senate Republicans actually vote to impeach, for example, on this particular charge. And that's where I think it's more the foreign influence piece, the foreign money in campaigns. The new reporting we're seeing on that, that is more politically persuasive.

LERER: It also -- it raises the risk for Democrats too, right? We know the Democratic base is itching to impeach. But just because you can pass articles of impeachment in the House doesn't mean that politically you should.

And so I think their -- the Republicans are trying to minimize this in part so that if Democrats, you know, give into their base and move forward with something, it looks like they're taking this impeachment. It's a big deal. It's only been done, you know, considered seriously, three times in American history and it's something that you want to make sure is used for a big deal offense. So they're trying to sort of lay the groundwork to make Democrats look like they're overreaching.

KING: Right. And so that's why the smarter Democrats are saying, let's wait six months.

LERER: Right.


LERER: And the committee (INAUDIBLE) leadership --

KING: Let's see where this goes.

LERER: Exactly.

KING: But to this point about -- you make a good case about, you know, to do that, to your argument about campaign finance, they would have to come out and say, well, we actually lied. These payments did happen, but they're not campaign finance violations. It was about protecting the president's family or whatever.

But this -- you do have some Republicans, including -- this is where it gets interesting -- George Conway, whose wife happens to work for the president of the United States, but you do have some Republicans saying -- saying what are we trying -- what are we doing here in terms of lowering the standard. This is a tweet from George Conway. It's reading the oath the president takes. I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, except where nobody gets killed or robbed.

Again, taking what Rudy Giuliani said and twisting it there. In an op- ed piece written in "The Washington Post," two Republicans, George Conway and Trevor Potter, and a Democrat, Neal Katyal, all with experience in campaign finance law and in the law, the bad arguments being floated in Trump's defense are emblematic of a deterioration in respect for the rule of law in this country. Chief among the values of our country is a commitment to the rule of law. No one, whether a senator or a president, should pretend America is something less.

[12:25:05] HENDERSON: Yes, and you've heard this conversation from these folks in "The Washington Post." There was also that op-ed in "The Washington Post" from 44 former senators, I think it was like 10 former Republicans basically saying these types of things. And also that the Senate has a duty to basically be a check on the president, a check on the president's power. But you weren't really hearing that from any current Republican senators. You're basically hearing a version of what Orrin Hatch said, which is like, he doesn't really care, this doesn't really rise to the level certainly of impeachment of something that he should even really hear about. Lindsey Graham essentially saying the same thing.

And I do think it's true that most Democrats, certainly the people who are going to be in leadership roles, are being very cautious here. They also remember what happened to Bill Clinton and so, yes, I mean, I think you're going to have this ongoing dynamic waiting to figure out what happens with all (INAUDIBLE).

LERER: I mean this was not a blowout election, let's also remember, so it is possible that covering up these payments could have influenced the election. I mean this is not a -- CORDERO: And just quickly, because I'm one of the founders of Checks and Balances, this rule of law organization with George Conway. The bigger point is that it is bizarre to have a president undermining law enforcement. And so that's the bigger --

KING: Almost daily.

CORDERO: Is that on a daily basis and so this is just the most recent example is that he's undermining his own Justice Department, his own FBI, his own federal prosecutors, and that is an untenable situation for someone who's taken an oath to the Constitution.

KING: Right. To Nia's point, it's an opportunity for all those Republicans to speak up and say there are lines here, but they won't.

KING: Up next, 690 days away. What's that? That's Election Day 2020. Who's topping the not so short list of possible Democratic White House hopefuls? Come out, we're going to have a little Friday fun.