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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Foundation Dissolving; Judge Blasts Michael Flynn, Delays Sentencing; White House Argues Flynn's Crimes Have "Nothing to Do" With Trump. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 18, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:13]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If only that judge told us how he really felt about Michael Flynn.

THE LEAD starts right now.

A courtroom stunner. After two hours of a judge rebuking fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, using words such as treason and disgust and disdain, we now have to wait three more months to find out Michael Flynn's fate. Why? Ask Robert Mueller.

Then, did President Trump just blink? The $5 billion demand for the border wall is now not so much of a demand. The White House latest move to find the funds before the clock runs out and the government shuts down later this week.

Plus, the president's charitable foundation now folding after prosecutors in New York claim the Trump family used it as a personal checkbook, yes, the same Trump family that's now leading the nation.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead and a stunning turn of events today. Former National Security Adviser to President Trump Michael Flynn was due to find out today if he is going to prison for lying to the FBI. And, in fact, based on the comments coming from the presiding judge, it looked to many observers as though Flynn indeed was going to get locked up.

But, apparently reading the room, Flynn's attorneys requested a delay, and that can was kicked 90 days down the road. It was a dramatic hearing today, with Judge Emmet Sullivan telling Flynn -- quote -- I am not hiding my disgust for your criminal offense," and even pressing the prosecutor representing the special counsel's office on whether they considered charging Flynn with treason.

After a recess, Sullivan then tried to walk back some of those harsh comments, including saying he was merely asking about treason, not making an accusation. Sullivan had also inaccurately asserted that Flynn had served as an agent for Turkey at the same time he was national security adviser in the White House. That's a falsehood that the judge corrected, noting that Flynn stopped serving as a foreign agent once he started officially working for the Trump administration.

But beyond the theatrics today, Flynn asserted in court he was not going to challenge the circumstances of that interview he had with the FBI, that he was aware lying to the FBI was a crime when he was interviewed, directly rebutting claims from the White House that investigators had been trying to -- quote -- "ambush" Flynn.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders even stood by that assertion that he was ambushed a few minutes ago, the Trump White House once again siding against the FBI and Department of Justice. Flynn, of course, a key player in the special counsel's Russia investigation, and he will, we are told, continue to cooperate with Robert Mueller.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now.

Jessica, I have to say, it sure sounded as though Judge Sullivan was going to send Flynn to the clink for at least some period of time.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It did, Jake. The judge stressed that prison time was not off the table, even though that's what Flynn's lawyers and Mueller's team essentially agreed to in their sentencing memos.

This was really a hearing that went off the rails for Flynn's team with that rough rhetoric coming from the judge who will ultimately sentence Flynn sometime next year.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Michael Flynn's sentencing is on hold after a dramatic two-hour rebuke from the judge, federal Judge Emmet Sullivan scolding President Trump's former national security adviser, telling Flynn, "I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain for your criminal offense."

MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The next president of the United States right here.

SCHNEIDER: At one point, the judge noted that Flynn was lobbying for the Turkish government at the same time he was working for the Trump campaign. Flynn even wrote an op-ed on Election Day attacking a cleric living in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish government accused of orchestrating a failed coup against Turkish President Erdogan.

The judge said: "That undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out," though Judge Sullivan later acknowledged Flynn stopped lobbying once he was named national security adviser. Judge Sullivan asked the special counsel's team twice if Flynn's conduct rises to the level of treasonous activity, but walked that back, too, saying he wasn't suggesting Flynn committed treason.

Mueller's lawyer said the special counsel did not consider charging Flynn with treason.

FLYNN: This election is about the heart and soul of the United States of America.

SCHNEIDER: Sullivan also questioned why Flynn would plead guilty when his lawyers have accused the FBI of tricking Flynn into lying about his contacts with the former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a January 2017 interview with agents at the White House.

Judge Sullivan saying: "I cannot recall any incident where the court has ever accepted the plea of someone who maintained he was not guilty." The judge even giving Flynn several opportunities to rethink his plea, but Flynn told the judge he wanted to proceed. The judge then asking, "Because you're guilty of this offense?" Flynn answering, "Yes, Your Honor."

[16:05:05]

But because Flynn continues to cooperate with Robert Mueller's team, meeting with them 19 times so far, according to the special counsel's prosecutor, the judge suggested delaying the sentence until he's done cooperating, telling Flynn, "The more you assist the government, the more you arguably help yourself at the time of sentencing."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And after a 30-minute recess, that's ultimately what Flynn's team decided to do. They acknowledged that Flynn might be called to testify in a Virginia case against his two former business associates.

And then Flynn's lawyers formally asked to delay the sentencing. Prosecutors then agreed, and, Jake, now we're looking at a March 13 date for a status update with a sentencing that could follow sometime after that -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

Let's chew over this wild and wacky day with our panel.

Mary Katharine, I will start with you.

Do you think that the prosecutors just read the room and said, boy, this judge is going to throw the book, let's get a few more months of cooperation with Mueller under his belt and we will give it again or maybe get some new evidence? What do you think was going to through their mind?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Why does it always have to be this wild, man?

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

HAM: We can't just have a sentencing hearing. Everybody has go the to play up to the drama level of everyone in the Trump administration.

Look, I think, yes, they read the room, probably, and were like, maybe we can appeal for a change of judge at some point, because this guy was mad. And it's important to note, too, that he was the one who asked for the FBI interview papers.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The 302, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: So he has presumably seen those and is still this angry. That might tell us something about how that process went down.

TAPPER: Yes. And I have to say -- I said this in the open. But he said some things that were inaccurate, the judge, Judge Sullivan. He said that Michael Flynn -- and you can get mad at Michael Flynn for what he did while he was a foreign agent for Turkey and he didn't disclose it and he was working for a presidential campaign and all of that.

But he said Flynn was a foreign agent while working as national security adviser, and that is technically not true.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It seemed like everyone's ego was getting in the way.

Flynn, I'm guilty of lying, but maybe I was entrapped. And that made the judge made. And then the judge comes out and says, maybe you should have been guilty of treason because he can't figure out when Flynn was registered as a foreign agent.

I would have had much more confidence in the system if the judge knew the facts at least as well as I do, because that's a pretty basic mistake. So maybe at the end of the day, this is all for the better, to give everybody a pause for three months, because I would feel better if everybody could read the full sentencing memo unredacted by the time that Flynn is sentenced.

I'm glad the 302s came out. That gives more clarity to how that conversation went down. So maybe everybody needs more time to get the facts straight, including the judge.

TAPPER: What did you think about when the judge asked the prosecutors, the special counsel's prosecutors, if they had ever thought of charging Flynn with treason?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I was one -- to be honest, it's clearly a question I had on my mind. I just didn't think I would hear it in that -- or not hear it, because we clearly don't have the cameras in the courtroom, which I would petition that the people want the cameras. OK? We want the cameras.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: But when I heard that, I was a little taken aback. But,, again, it's a question I definitely had on my mind, which maybe it's a question millions of other Americans had on their mind. What I find so interesting about this and the commentary around what

we saw and what we heard and saw from pictures in the courtroom today is that there are a few things that are not debatable. Michael Flynn did not change his guilty plea today. He still pled guilty.

This is not a question of if he did it. The question is, what will his consequences for doing it be? So there is no question on the table if he is guilty. He is in fact guilty.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

And, in fact, the judge was hot, and maybe out over his ski tips. I will say, you can't ascribe a political motive to that anger. He was first put on the D.C. bench by Ronald Reagan, then promoted to the appeals bench in D.C. by George H.W. Bush, then on the federal court by Bill Clinton.

So if you can find a political agenda in there -- I think he was honestly angry that General Flynn's supporters were pulling this line of baloney that somehow he was entrapped, he's just a babe in the woods, he's just a three-star general who has no idea that you can't lie to the FBI.

And the crime occurred in the White House, which is a sacred space, and it was by a three-star general, in whom we ought to have the highest standards. And so I can understand why he was angry. He should have not said treason. Treason is not anywhere in the ballpark.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: The bar is very high.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: I'm just asking questions, man.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Just to be a lawyer, it's the only crime defined in the Constitution, because the founders knew anybody...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: It's punishable by death.

BEGALA: Anybody who criticized the government in Britain was accused of treason. To commit treason, you have to wage war against the United States, obviously not, or provide aid and comfort to the enemy.

Now, Turkey, Russia, they may be countries that we have complex relationships with, but we're not at war with them. So, it's not on the table.

CARPENTER: But I am glad that the judge zoned in on the fact that it is disgraceful that Flynn was acting as an unregistered agent for Turkey during the campaign.

[16:10:02]

The judge kind of got the facts wrong, but that is correct. And so that is a big deal. And I don't think people -- that gets emphasized enough. We get caught up in the lying.

But he was acting as an agent of Turkey during the campaign, writing op-eds, and just, you know, freelancing on this. You know, what did Trump know? There are so many questions that stem from that...

TAPPER: Yes.

CARPENTER: ... that are unanswered.

TAPPER: And one thing I think is interesting, Mary Katharine, is that a lot of Flynn supporters say he was ambushed and say that he was entrapped by the FBI.

But if you read the notes, actually, the FBI bent over backwards for Flynn, who they considered, I'm sure, like a colleague and a fellow intelligence...

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: ... sort of wanted to jog his memory.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Yes, wanted to jog his memory, in a way, by the way, that they would not do for anybody around this table if we ever got interviewed by the FBI.

SANDERS: Oh, no, they would take me hand in cuffs, Jake.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: We will discuss that later.

But in one of the exchanges -- quote -- "The interviewing agents asked Flynn if he recalled any conversations with Kislyak about a United Nations vote surrounding the issue of Israeli settlements." Flynn quickly responded, "Yes, good reminder."

That's the kind of, like, well, what about -- that's not trying to entrap him.

HAM: The bottom line is, he copped to it. That's the corner he finds himself stuck in, that he's painted himself into. He said, I am guilty of this, which is why the judge got mad when he suggested there was something else going on here.

But I will say, I do not understand why so many figures who end up on the other side of the Trump administration, such as this judge, seem determined to convince his supporters that there is, in fact, a giant, like, politically motivated and emotional...

TAPPER: You think that Judge Sullivan is feeding into the deep state narrative?

HAM: Yes, calm professionalism gets you a lot further in this situation and does not feed that sentiment. It happens over and over again.

SANDERS: I think the fact of the matter is, it's the judge's courtroom, though. So the judge can -- the judge can exhibit whatever type of temperament the judge would like to exhibit in the judge's courtroom.

HAM: He's entitled to his emotions, but not, as we say, his own facts.

CARPENTER: I agree with you.

But there is still a big question. Why did Flynn go down this route of bringing up entrapment, when he had lowest sentencing recommendation?

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: I'm not a lawyer, but that seems like a bad idea. When you're already in the best position, why do you screw that up?

Is it because his ego just got in the way and he was looking for a FOX News contract or something after? I want to know.

BEGALA: And the claim of entrapment is a lie. He's confessing to a lie. So it's probably a bad idea, when you're going to be sentenced for lying to lie, going in to see the judge.

SANDERS: But why did Michael Flynn lie?

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: That's the big mystery that we don't know.

SANDERS: It not -- I thought I was going to get that clarity in the courtroom today, Jake. I don't understand why Michael Flynn lied. Even after the jogging of the memory, he still lied.

So what was Michael Flynn trying to protect? And is there still more? I don't think that's become clear.

TAPPER: As we have said at this table before, there is nothing wrong with an incoming national security adviser talking with a foreign diplomat about their plans for what they're going to do when they take power. So why lie about any of it?

Everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about.

According to the president, Michael Cohen is a rat, but Michael Flynn, he deserves good luck. But they're both cooperating with Robert Mueller. So what's the difference?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:59] TAPPER: In our politics lead today, the White House this afternoon insisting that the nation's chief law enforcement agency ambushed its former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after a federal judge delayed Flynn's sentencing for lying to that agency, the FBI.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders now claiming that none of Flynn's admitted crimes have anything to do with President Trump, despite the fact that Flynn committed those crimes while working in the West Wing and was fired by President Trump for lying to the vice president about the very same subject, his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live for us now at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, how can Sarah Sanders continue to argue that Flynn was ambushed when Flynn's lawyer said this was not a case of entrapment by the FBI and Flynn himself today said he knew at the time that lying to the FBI was a crime?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the judge made a point of having Mike Flynn saying he lied to the FBI, he knew it was a crime and took full responsibility for it today. But that's not what the White House entered for that hearing thinking was going to happen. They thought that judge was going to be much more critical of the way the FBI interviewed Mike Flynn. But instead, he told the president's former national security adviser that he believed he had sold out the country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): In the first White House briefing in weeks -- the Trump administration was on the defense after a wild two-hour sentencing hearing for fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resulted in him taking a federal judge up on his offer to delay the sentencing until he completes his cooperation with prosecutors.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The delay is something between General Flynn and the courts. In the meantime, we wish General Flynn well.

COLLINS: When reporters raised questions about the president's morning tweet wishing Flynn good luck in court, Sanders said she saw no problem with Trump praising someone who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and worked as an unregistered agent on behalf of another government during his campaign.

SANDERS: It's perfectly acceptable for the president to make a positive comment about somebody while we wait to see what the court's determination is.

COLLINS: Sanders arguing that Flynn's lies on White House grounds had nothing to do with Trump.

SANDERS: Maybe he did do those things, but that doesn't have anything to do with the president.

COLLINS: In recent days, the president and his allies have suggested misconduct by the FBI during Flynn's interview last January.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, the FBI said Michael Flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn't lie. And Mueller said, well, maybe he did.

COLLINS: But not even Flynn's legal team used that defense today. Instead, telling the federal judge he was not entrapped by the FBI, and was fully aware lying to investigators is a crime. But the White House was hoping the judge would focus on the FBI's behavior in court.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you arguing that he was entrapped?

SANDERS: Look, we're arguing that he was certainly ambushed.

COLLINS: Asked this afternoon if she wanted to amend that statement made this morning --

SANDERS: We don't have any reason to want to walk that back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:20:00] COLLINS: Now, Sanders also argued today that calling someone a rat is appropriate for someone who has been dishonest and is lying. Michael Flynn lied to the FBI, to the vice president, to the former chief of staff, to the former press secretary, yet today the White House wished him well as we await his sentencing -- Jake.

TAPPER: It sounds like you're suggesting there's a different standard there for Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen -- I don't want to put words in your mouth, Kaitlan Collins. Thanks so much.

Let's talk about it with our panel here.

First of all, let me just talk about the idea that the White House is calling Michael Cohen a rat because he's a liar. And let me just say, Michael Cohen is a liar. He is. So is Michael Flynn. And president Trump tells so many lies that the "Washington Post" actually had to invent a new category in their fact-checking department, the bottomless Pinocchio.

So, I -- I'm wondering what you think as somebody who has written a book about how often the Trump administration and the president lie. Where do they have the moral ground to call somebody a rat because he lies?

CARPENTER: They don't. This is how they operate, but I think there's one statement that's going to come back to haunt Sarah Huckabee Sanders from that briefing. She stood at the podium and said that Michael Flynn's lies have nothing to do with President Trump. Oh, really? Let's push back on that a little bit. He lied to the FBI

about the conversations he had about sanctions with the Russian government during the transition. Why did he lie?

Well, let me ask this. What are the chances he was freelancing that conversation? Would General Flynn go to the Russian government and say, don't worry about retaliation if he didn't have some kind of authorization from Trump? I think not. That has not been proven. But we keep going around these circles saying, why did General Flynn lie?

Well, if he was directed to have those conversations with the Russians by President Trump, that would be a pretty big reason to lie.

TAPPER: Interesting. The other thing, Mary Katharine, the president is saying that Flynn was ambushed today, and they're siding basically with Flynn, even though he's not even making the assertion he was ambushed, against the FBI. Last December, President Trump tweeted, I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI.

So, President Trump at one point, a year ago, was upset that Flynn had lied to the FBI. Now he's basically denying that Flynn lied to the FBI. Is there a strategy here? I don't really understand why they would change on this.

HAM: I don't believe there's ever a strategy. And a good strategy would be to hush your mouths. Hush. Because --

TAPPER: We've been saying this for three years and --

(LAUGHTER)

HAM: I know, but I feel the need to say it yet again.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: I know, but like the reason that Sanders is talking about it is because Trump is tweeting about it and your legal strategy should be let's keep it very minimal. But we cannot do that.

TAPPER: Is this setting a stage for a Flynn pardon? What's the purpose?

SANDERS: I mean, potentially, it could be. Again, I'm -- I don't think there is a strategy here when it comes to Michael Flynn. I think that press briefing today was extremely problematic.

I think Sarah Sanders -- not surprising to anyone at this table, told many lies during the press briefing. One of which, that it had nothing to do with -- what Michael Flynn is doing had nothing to do with Donald Trump. She also -- the press gave her an out to go back on what she said oh this morning on Fox News, saying that Flynn was ambushed.

Flynn told -- he said in court today he was not ambushed. There was no entrapment. So, I don't really understand what the strategy is. But I will say that we are looming in front of a government shutdown. With everything that happened today with Michael Flynn, the Trump foundation now having to dissolve because they were nefarious and just downright wrong and now Senate Republicans not being able to reach a deal with Democrats on the Hill. This is a real issue for the president and this press briefing didn't help.

TAPPER: So, Paul, President Trump tweeted good luck to Michael Flynn in court this morning. Sarah Sanders was asked by Josh Dawsey of the "Washington Post," why would he do this? He is pleading guilty to federal crimes. Take a listen to this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO LCIP)

JOSH DAWSEY, THE WASHINGTON POST: Why is the president making positive comments about him, given these things that he's pled but guilty to?

SANDERS: It's perfectly acceptable for the president to make a positive comment about somebody while we wait to see what the court's determination is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He lied to the FBI. He's already why would you wish good things?

BEGALA: And we weren't waiting for the court's determination. He was pleading guilty.

HAM: The determination is made.

BEGALA: The determination is made by General Flynn!

TAPPER: Yes.

BEGALA: I am guilty, I am a felon. So there's s no finding of fact here at issue that the president should actually state out of. But he's obviously communicating with Flynn. And it's always Trump's self interest. I do think there is a strategy in that Trump always talks about himself and refers everything --

TAPPER: You think he's communicating, I'm with you, stay with me.

BEGALA: I think he is. I think he is.

CARPENTER: But don't you think Sarah Sanders and the rest of the White House were expecting to take a victory lap today? Everybody thought that General Flynn was going to get no jail time. That blew up in their face when the judge essentially accused him of treason, called him a disgrace and other things and still had to go to the podium. They couldn't cancel at that point.

And so, they miscalculated. This is a gross miscalculation.

SANDERS: I think what we saw today, though, is the fact that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, many people when she first got the job said she's inexperienced, she hasn't had the experience.

[16:25:05] But I would venture to say what we saw today is another example how she is not only inexperienced, but she's unqualified. You can be inexperienced and be able to do the job, I don't think she's qualified to do this thing.

HAM: I think it can be as simple as -- self interest and his affinity, right? He has an affinity for generals who like Trump. And General Flynn is a general who likes Trump and therefore he is going to --

TAPPER: Just going to root for him? You don't think there is anything along the lines, stay with me, I'll stay with you? I'm here for you, I'm rooting for you?

HAM: It's a combination of the two, and, again, if you just hushed your mouth --

TAPPER: President Trump clearly bothered by this before 9:00 a.m. this morning. The president angrily tweeted about the, quote, Mueller witch hunt, about Flynn's court appearance, about the Fed, about social media companies being unfair to Republicans, about immigration, and about Christopher Steele and the Steele dossier.

CARPENTER: This is a hot mess. Let me tell you what. There is no chance there's going to be a government shutdown, because they are trying to fend off 17 different investigations that impact the Trump White House, the Trump family, every which way. They are just hoping for something to change the narrative and for something to break their way.

TAPPER: Well, let's talk about one of those investigations forced to fold. The Trump family charity shutting down after the president and his kids are accused of using the charity as a personal piggy bank. So where does all that money go now?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)