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Michael Flynn's former Business Partner Charged; Giuliani Indicates Trump "Talked About Moscow Project into Late 2016; Giuliani: "Collusion Is Not a Crime"; New Report: Russia Used Every Major Social Network to Help Elect, Support Trump; Washington Braces for Shutdown in Five Days; Mulvaney Called Trump "A Horrible Human Being" in 2016; Growing Speculation Trump Will Face Primary Challenge. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 17, 2018 - 11:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for being with us. We'll see you back here tomorrow. I'm Poppy Harlow.


"AT THIS HOUR," with Pamela Brown sitting in today, starts right now.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Kate Bolduan on this Monday.

We begin this hour with breaking news. Federal prosecutors have filed charges against a former business partner of Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser. The charges include conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, announced just before Flynn's scheduled sentencing tomorrow.

I'm going to bring in CNN's Kara Scannell. She joins us now.

Explain the charges to us, Kara.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, pam. These charges were announced today although they were filed under seal on December 12th. We learned Michael Flynn's former business partner, Buan Rafiekian, has been charged with conspiring to act as a foreign agent in the U.S., lobbying for the extradition of a Turkish cleric who lives here. Now, he was also charged along with a Turkish Dutch businessman named Kamil Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin had hired the Flynn intel group to make this lobbying campaign to essentially -- a broad public relations campaign to sully the reputation of the cleric living here. He had done it on behalf of the Turkish government. Now, the U.S. is charging today neither gentleman had registered as an agent working with Turkey, and Alptekin was also charged with lying to the FBI about who he was working for, saying he had done this campaign on his own.

So both men were charged today with conspiring to act as foreign agents for lobbying for the extradition of a Turkish cleric and launching a public relations campaign to sully his reputation without disclosing they were doing this on behalf of the Turkish government - Pam?

BROWN: What do we know, Kara, about their engagement with the presidential transition?

SCANNELL: Buan Rafiekian, also known as Bijan Rafiekian, he worked on the transition team. A lot of this activity to try to influence had occurred in the fall of 2016, as according to the indictment released today. So they were trying to convince the transition to extradite the cleric. In fact, that's still going on today. There's still an interest by the Turkish government for the extradition of this cleric. The Turkish government has accused him of inciting the coup a few years ago of trying to overthrow the government.

BROWN: Kara Scannell, thank you for breaking it down for us. We appreciate it.

Joining me now to discuss, Elie Honig, a CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor with the southern district of New York. And Kim Wehle, a former federal prosecutor and former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation.

Thank you both for coming on.

Elie, I want to start with you. Break down the significance, if you would, of the new charges of Michael Flynn's former business partner. It seems to me this is a sign that Robert Mueller takes these issues of foreign lobbying very seriously.

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Pam, you're right. These are violations of FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. We have seen quite a bit of that in this case. It's a federal law that says if you're lobbying inside the United States on behalf of a foreign entity, then you have to register with the United States government. Otherwise, you're effectively working as a spy. So that's the purpose of the law. We have seen similar charges already from Mueller. This is what Paul Manafort was charged with and convicted of. This is what Rick Gates was charged with. And there have been other investigations of FARA violations Mueller has sent out to other U.S. attorneys' offices. So this is something going around. We're learning a lot more now. And it all ties into this network of professionals, apparently, who were undercover lobbying, technically spying here in the United States.

BROWN: These charges, unsealed, Kim, just before a very big day for Michael Flynn. He'll be sentenced for lying to the FBI tomorrow. The expectation is he won't see jail time. Outside of the sentence itself, what could we learn tomorrow?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I think what's also interesting about these charges today is that if you read the sentencing memo for Mr. Flynn, they indicate he also lied about his contacts with Turkey. That he was actually doing work on behalf of people in Turkey, didn't disclose that he was engaged with the actual Turkish government. And as Elie mentioned, the FARA itself is mentioned in the sentencing memo. I don't expect tomorrow that we're going to see anything other than what the government is asking for. On the other hand, we do have an independent federal judiciary here. So even if in this instance they're not asking for jail time, there's always an opportunity or a chance that a federal judge will say, listen, I think this warrants something more because the charges are so serious. In this instance, you know, in exchange for what Mr. Flynn is giving the government, he's gotten quite a lenient recommendation with respect to his sentence.

BROWN: That's right.

Elie, I want to wring you in on this op-ed you wrote for You say, "Sometimes in the long term, the quiet one has the most to say." What did you mean by that?

[11:05:09] HONIG: Yes, so Flynn remains something of a mystery man. If you remember a couple weeks ago when Mueller put in the sentencing memo on Flynn, we were eager to see it, and it ended up being almost entirely redacted, almost black ink all over the page. I think if you read between the lines, you can see that Flynn could have given Mueller some really valuable information. I think today's arrest likely is part of that. A small part of that. But Mueller gives us lots of little clues. The fact that he proffered Flynn 19 times, that's a huge number. I don't think I ever proffered any witness 19 times. The fact that he said Flynn was credible, reliable, backed by other evidence. The fact he says Flynn has firsthand evidence. That tells me Flynn is in the room when these decisions, these important decisions are being made. Not just someone who is hearing things second or third-hand. So given the extent of Flynn's connections overseas, his involvement in the campaign in the early days of the administration, I think we could be hearing plenty more from Michael Flynn.

BROWN: We still don't know why he lied. That's still a looming question over all of this.

I want to move now, Kim, to Rudy Giuliani's defense of the president over the weekend. First of all, his implication that Trump Tower Moscow talks may have extended all the way to November 2016. Now, for context, we should note the president's former attorney, Michael Cohen, recently said those discussions ended in June 2016. Giuliani clarified later in an interview to my colleague, Dana Bash, saying the president's answer to Mueller was general and he doesn't remember the timeframe he discussed the project. How do you think Robert Mueller views statements like this?

WEHLE: Statements by Rudy Giuliani, at this point, I don't think any prosecutor or investigator is taking them seriously because Mr. Giuliani is, I think, functioning more as a P.R. person rather than an attorney for the president at this point. But it's important to keep in mind that as much as the Mueller investigation didn't start until 2017, the internal DOJ and FBI investigation into Russian interference started some time in the spring through maybe June of 2016. So the fact that at the same time our federal government was investigating Russian interference in the election, starting with the Papadopoulos communications with Russians, the president potentially, according to his lawyer, was engaged in discussions around building a tower in Moscow that people who work with the Russians can tell you, that means he was communicating with people close to Trump -- excuse me, close to Putin or having to work with people close to Putin because that's how it goes in Russia. That is significant.

And I think you raise a really excellent point, which is all of this, all of these lies, all of this broad collusion, for lack of a better word, boils down to why. Why are people doing this? One of the questions I think Mueller will look at is if there was some kind of quid pro quo. Some kind of listen, if you do something for me on Trump Tower Moscow, I'll do something for you on sanctions, for example, if I get elected president of the United States.

BROWN: Speaking of collusion, Giuliani's argument now is that, even if collusion happened, as it pertained to Wikileaks, it wasn't a crime. Here he is on Roger Stones and Wikileaks.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Did Roger Stone ever give the president a heads-up on Wikileaks leaks on Hillary Clinton and the DNC?

RUDY GIULIANI, PERSONAL ATTORNEY TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, he didn't. Not at all. I don't believe so. But again, if Roger Stone gave anybody a heads-up about Wikileaks leaks, that not a crime. It would be like giving them a heads up that the "Times" is going to print something. Once the -- that's why this thing is so weird, strange. The crime is conspiracy to hack. Collusion is not a crime. It doesn't exist.


BROWN: All right. So question to you, Elie. Is Giuliani on sound legal ground? If you were a prosecutor in the case and you heard a defense attorney with this argument, what would you think?

HONIG: Rudy kind of answered his own question there. He says in one breath, collusion is not a crime. No kidding, it's a word that Rudy and the president kind of made up. But in the very next sentence, he says the crime would be conspiracy to commit computer hacking. Yes, if the proof bears out that the president or Roger Stone or people around them were involved in the effort to hack and then to disseminate the e-mail through Wikileaks, that would be conspiracy. They would be part of a computer hacking scheme. And there's an even broader theory of conspiracy that Mueller has been using that federal courts have upheld, which is if you're in a broad conspiracy to undermine the function of the United States government. Mueller has charged that. It's been challenged and federal judges have upheld it. Rudy isn't making a lot of sensible legal headway there.

BROWN: Kim, Rudy was also seeming to draw a parallel between Wikileaks and other media publications like the "New York Times," saying even if there was a heads-up given, it's like being given a heads-up on a "New York Times" article. What do you make of that? [11:10:05] WEHLE: I think Elie is absolutely right that there still

can be a crime, because stealing information, Wikileaks, if they got the information from private e-mail servers, that itself is a crime. And then aiding and abetting or agreeing to use that information in a way that would defraud the United States, that itself can also be a crime.

But I think the broader problem here has to do with the president's lawyer conveying to the American public some sense that the rule of law is optional. That if even if we have crimes on the books, we saw this with the Cohen plea, they don't really matter. That campaign finance laws don't really matter. It's like parking tickets, like little things. I think this is a drip, drip, drip towards really historically, if you look at other democracies, moving towards an autocracy. And we have to be really, really careful about sort of shrugging at things that could be crimes or things that actually are crimes. That to me is problematic that it's something that the president of the United States is sanctioning in various issues right now.

BROWN: All right, Elie and Kim, thank you so much.

Well, also this morning, two new reports detail just how far Russia went in its social media campaign to help get Donald Trump elected. This report, commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, is the most exhaustive analysis yet of Moscow's disinformation attack. And it found that Russia deployed every major social media platform to sow discord and push voters toward then-Candidate Trump.

I want to bring in CNN's Alex Marquardt, here to break it down.

What more did we learn in this report? There had been a lot out there about Russia's disinformation campaign, but it appears there's more details, Alex.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot more details. That's what's new, Pam. These are two blockbuster reports that really dive into a huge amount of data from the social media giant.

What it discovered is the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm, acted beyond the 2016 election, but during the 2016 campaign, it was fully backing the candidacy of Donald Trump while working to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Let's take a quick look at the numbers. This is what these reports found that the Internet research agency actually posted, some 10 million tweets, 116,000 Instagram posts, 61,000 Facebook posts, and 1,000 videos. And then there were another 44 Twitter accounts that were posing as U.S.-related news organizations, and they had collected some 600,000 followers.

Now, Pam, we talked a lot about the disinformation campaign. What's really interesting in this report, what really stands out is the Russian effort to recruit what they called assets. To get individuals to do what they wanted them to do. For example, there was a Christian page that was offering counseling for people with sex addiction, so if people responded to that, that would have given the Russians an opportunity to blackmail them. But they also say the most prolific efforts by the Russians were in the African-American communities. The report does make clear that targets were both on the left and on the right. Getting the two sides essentially to work against each other.

It's a very detailed and very disturbing report. Not just in the wake of 2016, but also, Pam, as we look ahead to 2020.

BROWN: It shows you the extent of the effort and sophistication.

Alex Marquardt, thank you so much.

And coming up on this busy Monday, a video surfaces showing President Trump's new chief of staff pick calling then-Candidate Trump "a terrible human being." Will this put Mick Mulvaney in jeopardy? Details ahead on that.

Plus, could Trump face a challenger from his own party in the 2020 race? At least one Republican Senator says she'd be cool with that. Stay with us.

We'll be right back.


[11:18:07] BROWN: Five days and counting, that's how long before a partial shutdown of the federal government could happen. And negotiations seem to be going nowhere fast. No one on Capitol Hill seems to know what President Trump will or will not accept for a deal. He's threatened to shut down the government over funding for the border wall, and congressional aides think an interview with White House adviser, Stephen Miller, yesterday shows that Trump is not ready to budge.


STEPHEN MILLER, WHITE HOUSE ADVISOR: We're going to do whatever is necessary to build the border wall, to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration.


MILLER: This is a very -- if it comes to it, absolutely. This is a very fundamental issue. At stake is the question of whether or not the United States remains a sovereign country, whether or not we can establish and enforce rules for entrants into our country.


BROWN: Meanwhile, the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, told NBC that Trump is, quote, "not going to get the wall in any form." So is there any hope for a deal?

Joining me now, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, Julie Pace. It sort of feels like here we go again, Julie. According to Stephen

Miller, the White House isn't budging. They want $5 billion for the border wall or they'll shut down the government. What are you hearing?

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So, it does feel like a bit of deja vu because we do get into these cycles with shutdowns almost every year at this point as we get close to the holidays. I think that the White House clearly is feeling as though fighting for the border wall is the right thing to do for the full $5 billion that the president wants. That being said, the reality is that there aren't the votes for that level of funding on Capitol Hill. Even though Republicans have control of both the House and Senate. So lawmakers really at this point feel like the ball is in the White House's court. If Trump wants to avoid a shutdown at the end of this week, he has to accept something short of that $5 billion that he's asking for. Whether that means punting this whole debate into January or just simply accepting a lower dollar amount and maybe going with the idea that the military, as Trump has floated, would end up just building this wall if Congress won't fund it. It could be one of those two options, but you can expect a lot of back and forth and a lot of drama over the next couple of days even if we get to the point where we can avoid a shutdown.

[11:20:18] BROWN: Right. You heard the president say just recently that he's OK with a shutdown because he feels like funding for the border wall is that important. At the end of the day, that's not really what he wants. Neither side really wants that. You have the House getting back to work until Wednesday. Not getting back to work, I should say, until Wednesday. Is that enough time to get a deal done?

PACE: So Congress can act quickly when Congress wants to act quickly. It is amazing that even though this shutdown deadline is Friday, that as you mention, the House isn't even back until Wednesday night. If lawmakers do want to try to pull something together from Wednesday on, they probably could do that. But the timing is pretty tight right here. And ultimately, what motivates lawmakers is getting out of town for the holidays. That will probably be the biggest motivation beyond even the actual debate over funding for a border wall. But right now, they're just sort of looking at the White House, saying what are you going to accept? That's kind of this holding pattern that lawmakers are in right now.

BROWN: Right now, they're just looking at the White House, saying, what are you going to accept. That's like this holding pattern lawmakers are in right now.

Last week, I believe on Friday, the president announced his new chief of staff appointment, interim chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. His appointment has dredged up this sound from the 2016 campaign. Let's listen.


MICK MULVANEY, OMB DIRECTOR & INCOMING ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: Yes, I'm going to support Trump, doing so as enthusiastically as I can -- given the fact I think he's a terrible human being. The choice on the other side is just too bad.


BROWN: How does the president see comments like this now? He's not the first person to work in the administration, of course, or in the White House who has been critical of Donald Trump.

PACE: Sure. I don't think the president will take kindly to that kind of comment. That being said, Mulvaney has worked really hard over the last two years to build a strong relationship with the president. And he has. They are close allies. They are partners. Mulvaney is someone that the president has turned to when he's had to fill other vacancies, short term, in the administration. It's almost akin to someone like a Lindsey Graham, who was also quite critical of the president during the 2016 campaign and now has become one of his closest allies on Capitol Hill. Mulvaney has been able to overcome some of those feelings from the campaign and become really quite a close partner with the president. I think the big question with Mulvaney is, how long does he stay in the chief of staff role? He notably is taking it only on an acting basis and is keeping his job as OMB director, which seems to give both he and the president an out if the chief of staff position doesn't work for him.

BROWN: Certainly seems that way.

Julie, thank you so much.

PACE: Thanks, Pam.

BROWN: Coming up, the growing chatter of a possible primary challenge to President Trump in 2020. At least one Republican Senator is endorsing the idea. And a new CNN poll shows voters in one key state are also open to it. Details just ahead.


[11:27:45] BROWN: The race for 2020 is already under way, and there's growing speculation that President Trump might face a challenger from his own party. That's something Republican Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, tells CNN she's open to.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: But it sounds like you think it would be a good thing for the country and for the party for the president to face a primary challenge.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: It's not really my choice. It's the choice of those individuals, but I see nothing wrong with challengers. That is part of our democratic system.


BROWN: And Senator Collins also declined to endorse President Trump's re-election bid.

Her comments come as a new CNN/"Des Moines Register" poll shows 63 percent of Iowa Republican voters say the party should welcome primary challengers to President Trump.

Joining me to discuss are Scott Mulhauser, former deputy campaign chief of staff for Joe Biden, and Scott Jennings, a CNN political commentator and a former special assistant to president George W. Bush.

Great to see both of you.

Scott, thanks for coming on the show. We appreciate it. Lots to discuss.

Scott Jennings, first to you.

A Republican Senator saying she would welcome primary challengers. So do 63 percent of Republicans in Iowa. If you're on Team Trump, should you be worried?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, you shouldn't be worried at all. I mean, the odds of Donald Trump, based on what we know today, losing a primary to be renominated for president of the United States are about as likely as we sprouting wings and flying out of this tiny box. It's unlikely. The president, if he wants to be the nominee of his party, will be the nominee of his party. In the same surveys, Republicans are broadly supportive of his job in office. Will that stop someone from running? Maybe not, but it strikes me that you have to ask yourself, am I coming at him from the left or the right? I don't think it would be successful to come at him from a left in a Republican primary, and it would be hard to get to the right of him. I see no room for this. It's wishful thinking by a lot of folks but not real in the middle of the country.

BROWN: Scott Mulhauser, to you, as a Democrat, would you rather run against Donald Trump or a primary challenger who can beat him?

SCOTT MULHAUSER, FORMER DEPUTY CAMPAIGN CHIEF OF STAFF TO JOE BIDEN: I think Donald Trump gets strengthened if one of these lesser-known candidates jumps in and he beats them badly. If you're a Democratic candidate right now, you can't make the case that you should run for president, you can't make a case against Donald Trump, you likely shouldn't run. I think Democrats are salivating at the opportunity to run against President Trump.