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"BuzzFeed" Reports Trump Directed Michael Cohen to Lie to Congress on Moscow Tower Project; A.G. Nominee: Trump Committed Crime if Instructed Cohen to Lie to Congress; Democrats Vow to Investigate if Trump Obstructed Justice; Interview with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 18, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for being us. We'll see you back here Monday morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto, in Washington.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Kate Bolduan.

This morning, an explosive new report that, if true, could have major implications for the presidency of Donald Trump. "BuzzFeed" is reporting that President Trump personally instructed his lawyer to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. Two federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation say Trump directed Michael Cohen to say the negotiations ended months earlier than they did. CNN has not independently confirmed the "BuzzFeed" report.

And President Trump was quick to attack the credibility of Cohen, who has already pleaded guilty to Congress, tweeting this morning that Cohen is, quote, "lying to reduce his jail time."

The White House's deputy press secretary, meantime, was asked about it a short time ago. Take a listen. And note he did not deny the allegations.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The president did not tell Michael Cohen to do that?

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: I'm telling you this is why the president refuses to give any credence or credibility to news outlets because they have no ability to corroborate what they are putting out there. Instead, they're just using inuendo and --


CUOMO: That was not a denial of my question.

GIDLEY: No. But the premise is ridiculous.


HILL: Not a denial.

CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is following the developments for us.

Shimon, walk us through a little bit more of what we are learning. Give some details in this piece.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: Here is what makes this "BuzzFeed" story so damning when you think about it. If all of this is true, what "BuzzFeed" says is that there's other information that the FBI and the special counsel has that has nothing to do with Michael Cohen. There's text messages indicating this activity. There's documents. They have talked to other witnesses, according to "BuzzFeed," witnesses from the Trump Organization who have come in and talked to the FBI. There are internal company e-mails talking about this. So certainly a lot more information that would corroborate what "BuzzFeed" says that Michael Cohen has told the special counsel, that he was directed by the president to go before members of Congress and lie.

And what this is all about ultimately is the Trump/Moscow project. Really questions about, why would the president direct Michael Cohen to lie about it. Michael Cohen, when he pleaded guilty to lying to members of Congress, said he did it because he thought it would be politically favorable for the president if he didn't admit that the meetings that he was having about the Moscow project. So when you look at the Moscow project, the efforts began in 2015. And remember, they lasted much longer than initially indicated by the president and others. That's what sort of started a lot of the controversy surrounding the project because the president had indicated that talks about it had ended much earlier. Michael Cohen, when he pleaded guilty in Manhattan to lying to members of Congress, admitted that the conversations and activities surrounding the project went on much longer and that the president was being briefed. Certainly, a lot of questions. This story certainly, if true, would corroborate a lot of what "BuzzFeed" says Michael Cohen has told the special counsel.

HILL: Shimon Prokupecz, with more on that for us. Shimon, thank you.

And as Shimon pointed out, if proven true, the other issue here, President Trump committed a crime by instructing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. That is the legal opinion from a critical player, the president's own choice for attorney general, William Barr. Take a listen to what Barr said to Senators during his confirmation hearing a few days ago.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R-SC), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: If there's a reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?


GRAHAM: So if there's some evidence that the president tried to conceal evidence, that would be obstruction of justice potentially, right?

BARR: Right.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR, (D), MINNESOTA: You wrote on page one that, "A president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction." Is that right?

BARR: Yes.


BARR: Any -- well, any person who persuades another.

KLOBUCHAR: OK. You also said that, "A president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction." Is that right?

BARR: Yes.


HILL: CNN's Jeff Zeleny joining us now with more.

Jeff, we've also learned President Trump, not surprisingly, watching coverage of Barr's hearings. What has his reaction been so far?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPODNENT: Erica, good morning. We do know the president was watching all of that testimony earlier this week. We are told by three people familiar with the matter that the president was caught off guard by some of the testimony. Of course, this testimony this morning in the wake of that "BuzzFeed" report is coming under much sharper scrutiny here, particularly the questions from Senator Klobuchar there. But we know the president was surprised and taken aback a bit, we are told, by the friendship that William Barr described between him, his family and the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He said repeated that they are good friends and they will remain good friends.

[11:05:29] Erica, if the president has tried one thing, above all, it is to question the credibility, the integrity, the purpose of the special counsel investigation. We saw there at the hearing this week is that William Barr called Robert Mueller a straight shooter. He said he believes he is doing an honest probe here. That assails directly what the president has been talking about for months. So we know the president was caught off guard by this. He knows they knew each other through Washington legal establishments. But he did not know they were as close of friends.

We are told by people at the White House the president is not going to pull this nomination or change plans on this. But it certainly changes his view of his nominee to be attorney general. We always know, Erica, the president watching all of those hearings and couldn't have been pleased and, in fact, at what William Barr said about Bob Mueller -- Erica?

HILL: Jeff Zeleny, with the latest there. Jeff, thank you.

Joining me now, Renato Mariotti, CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, and Matthew Rosenberg, CNN national security analyst. He covers intelligence and national security for the "New York Times."

As we look at all of this, Renato, Barr was asked directly, and we heard him answering the question there in the sound we played about obstruction. You tweeted out last night that if this "BuzzFeed" story is true, we are actually talking about more than obstruction here. What else do you think is on the table?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sure. So it is a crime to lie to Congress. That on its own is a crime. Directing somebody to commit a crime means you are guilty of a crime. This is how a lot of times a boss gets in trouble, a crime boss gets, right, you direct other people to commit murders, you director other people to deal drugs, et cetera. Directing other people to lie to Congress is itself a crime, period, full stop. Similarly, supporting perjury is a crime. So you don't need to get to the broader issue of obstruction of justice. This is just a straight-up crime. The legal issue is very straightforward. As long as Michael Cohen was directed to lie, as to a material issue, in other words, to an issue that mattered, not about his weight or what he had for breakfast, but about something that was important to the United States Congress, that is a federal crime.

HILL: In terms of the lie itself, Matthew, that lie that "BuzzFeed" is reporting on, if true, is that the president asked Cohen that he -- it's not insignificant here in terms of the details of what he was asking him to talk about. It also speaks to Donald Trump's potential connections here. Walk us through that.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I mean, the "BuzzFeed," if true, is describing the president saying, I need you to lie about our conversations about the Trump Tower Moscow plan, that we know for the first half of 2016, deep into the presidential campaign, Donald Trump and the Trump Organization was negotiating to try and build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Donald Trump wanted Michael Cohen to lie about this. This starts to fit into this broader pattern we've seen where we get a range of denials on any number of issues and then we find out that, say, the campaign chairman was giving private briefings and polling data to Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. On any number of issues, we keep hearing things. And then there is, as Renato pointed out, just the sheer fact that asking somebody to lie to Congress, asking someone to lie to investigators, that's just a flat-out crime. It's not a process crime. It's not a fuzzy crime. If that's true, that is an unambiguous crime.

HILL: Renato, in response to the reporting, Rudy Giuliani said, quote, "If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn bridge." The president again tweeting this morning, "Michael Cohen is a liar." Here's the thing though. The reporting isn't so much about what Michael Cohen said, it's about who, according to "BuzzFeed," if it's true, who told him to say it. And the special counsel, according to "BuzzFeed," does have interviews with multiple witnesses to back this up. They have evidence. They said, we are talking about internal company e-mails, texts, documents. When you add all of that up, it's interesting that this is what we hear from Rudy Giuliani, Renato.

MARIOTTI: Yes, he is not denying the substance of it. He is saying that Cohen is a liar. And if what "BuzzFeed" news said was true, then it doesn't matter what Cohen says. I think a lot of viewers may have been following, for example, the trial of Paul Manafort. There, Robert Mueller's team put Rick Gates on the stand. He is a known liar. He's a guy who has been convicted of fraud. It didn't matter to the jury because there's so much other evidence against Paul Manafort that that evidence is what carried the day.

[11:10:02] HILL: It is fascinating. If we step back for just a moment and look at this Trump Tower Moscow deal, the deal didn't happen. The talks stopped before Donald Trump was elected, even if we are hearing different stories about when they talked and when people said they decided to stop. As you look at this through a national security lens, Matthew, is there a reason for concern here that you see?

ROSENBERG: You know, I mean, I think you want to be careful not to say like, oh, no, there's a deal in Russia, therefore it is bad. But you have a lot of context here. You have a president who seems to want to take Vladimir Putin's word over his own intelligence services at times. You have a president who keeps insisting that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government are potential partners and they're people we should be favorable to. Why? They have not proven to be reliable allies, friends of any sort for many, many years. Attempts to reset relations with Russia in the Bush administration and Obama administration failed. Why is Trump doing this? We find out, wait, they are negotiating business deals there, other things. That looks bad and looks like something is going on here or went on here.

HILL: It begs the question, too, yes, it may look bad, but is there real cause for concern based on what we know from a national security perspective?

ROSENBERG: Absolutely. If you fear the president is putting his own interests and future business deals, relations ahead of the country, then that is a national security problem, and unambiguous national security problem.

HILL: Renato, based on all of these things we keep learning, despite the fact that the special counsel has been very tight lipped, what does it tell you about the case that Robert Mueller is potentially building here?

MARIOTTI: I have to say, as you point out, Erica, Robert Mueller has been really tight lipped. We really know a fraction of what he knows. The way I would think about it is, when we look at the night sky, we see the stars but we can't see anything in between, comets and asteroids and all of these other things that are there. We don't really know what Mueller has. But just the little things that we do know are obviously alarming. The news today, we know about the campaign finance crime, for example, that the southern district prosecutors revealed. So there's certainly cause for concern. If I was the president's lawyer, I would be very alarmed. And I would really be figuring out what our options are and trying to mount a very aggressive defense because things don't look good for the president right now.

HILL: Renato Mariotti, Matthew Rosenberg, good to have you both here today. Thank you.

ROSENBERG: Thank you.

HILL: Coming up, "We are going to get to the bottom of it" -- that is a message from a top Democrat on this bombshell report from "BuzzFeed News." We'll speak with a member of the House Judiciary Committee, next.

Plus, a political tit for tat. President Trump grounding a war-zone visit by House Speaker Pelosi after she calls to reschedule the State of the Union. The back and forth. Is there any hope for a resolution as 800,000 federal workers wrap up another week without pay?


[11:17:22] HILL: We continue to follow the explosive report that, if true, could have major implications for President Trump. "BuzzFeed" reporting President Trump personally instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. Top Democratic lawmakers are now promising to investigate the claim.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler tweeting, "We know that the president has engaged in a long pattern of obstruction. Directing a subordinate to lie to Congress is a federal crime. The House Judiciary Committee's job is to get to the bottom of it and we will do that work."

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, who serves on that Judiciary Committee.

Good to have you with us today, sir.

You were also on Oversight in the last Congress, waiting to see if you are going to be back. As we look at this and what we have learned in the "BuzzFeed" report, if true, would it change at all what you would want to ask Michael Cohen on February 7, or what he should be asked?

REP. JAMIE RASKIN, (D), MARYLAND: Well, the Judiciary Committee and the Oversight Committee will be determined to fully investigate Mr. Michael Cohen's claims about the president, essentially supporting perjury. This is a federal criminal offense. And more importantly, it's a constitutional offense against the rule of law and against constitutional democracy. We simply can't have public officials going around ordering their underlings to lie to Congress. So I think this would very quickly become the primary focus of what the committees want to look at in terms of Mr. Cohen's testimony. We don't know if it is true, of course. But already, people, of course, are saying that this is a matter of the gravest legal urgency. HILL: Michael Cohen, as far as we know, is still planning to testify,

but sources telling CNN he is concerned for the safety of his family. Do you have any indication that he may not appear?

RASKIN: I have no reason to think he won't appear. We would clearly do whatever we can within our power to make sure that he is secure and safe when he comes to Capitol Hill. I don't know what other provisions can be made to guarantee his safety. I have never seen a situation like that before, at least since I have been in Congress for the last couple of years. Obviously, we would do whatever we can to make sure that no witness who appears before the U.S. Congress suffers any kind of retaliation.

HILL: As we look at all of this, your Democratic colleague, Congressman Joaquin Castro, tweeting, "If the 'BuzzFeed' story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached."

Before joining Congress, you taught constitutional law. If the president did, in fact, tell Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, is that an impeachable offense in.

[11:20:10] RASKIN: Look, Bill Clinton was impeached about over the matter of telling one lie. That lie related to a private sexual affair. This is a pattern of suborning perjury before Congress on a matter of national security importance. So clearly, if we follow the precedent set by the Republicans during the Clinton administration, this is a completely impeachable offense. If this report is true. And I want to underscore that all of this is based on the truth of the statements by Mr. Cohen. We don't know yet if they are true. The same thing took place with Richard Nixon. Lying and obstruction of justice were the cardinal offenses. I think obstruction of justice was the very first impeachment article brought against him. Obstruction of justice and perjury to Congress are right there in the heart of impeachment territory. There's no doubt about that.

HILL: As you look at this, then, and as you point out, if these claims are true, if this reporting is true, what kind of evidence would you need, personally, would you need to see to make that judgment?

RASKIN: Well, we want to hear from everybody who was involved in it, everybody who was involved allegedly in the conspiracy to suborn perjury before Congress to suppress the story of the president's ongoing business relationship with Russia. You know, I have to say that there's a lot of evidence that has come out already in the various criminal prosecutions and indictments and the sentencing reports which indicate that the president had extensive business ties with Russian tycoons and oligarchs. I have felt that the Achilles heel of this administration, from the beginning, without regard to the truth of this particular allegation, but I have felt the Achilles heel of this administration is that the president has run it like a money making operation. He has continued all of his businesses, the Trump Hotel, the Trump Tower. He's never disengaged either from ownership or the collection of profits or even management. Other people are managing on a daily basis but he apparently continues to check in on it. We have never seen anything like it in the history of the United States. From that cardinal sin and the putative violation of the Emoluments Clause, that is like collecting money from foreign princes, kings and governments in violation of Article I, Section IX of the Constitution, flows everything else, the obstruction of justice, the pattern of lying, the concealment of all of these relationships with Vladimir Putin and his various oligarchs and the business tycoons that surround him. I think the basic flaw was to violate the wisdom of the founders. The founders put in our Constitution a number of provisions that tried to guarantee that the president of the United States would have 100 percent undivided fiduciary loyalty to the American people. That was the whole idea of the Emoluments Clause, the whole idea of not allowing the president to collect titles of nobility and other salaries. The idea was the president would be committed to our people. And our president violated the basic oath and basic commitment, and from that has flowed all of these other potential crimes and impeachable offenses.

HILL: Congress, before I let you go, I want to touch on this. It is day 28 of the shutdown. You have said your top priority is ending the shutdown. There are 80,000-plus federal workers who you represent in your district. We are looking at a full month of people not getting paid, some of them working anyway. There's a political tit for tat going on. What is more important today? A political win or people being able to feed their families? What are you willing to give?

RASKIN: We have voted nine times to reopen the government of the United States. We have accepted the Republican bills that passed overwhelmingly in the GOP-controlled Senate to reopen the government. We passed legislation to reopen the Department of State, Department of Commerce, HUD, the Department of Justice, Agriculture, Interior, you name it. We have passed those repeatedly now. We are begging the president to come to the table and reopen the government of the United States. It is hurting our people in very serious ways. I do have tens of thousands of constituents who are air traffic controllers, they are scientists at the FDA, they are researchers at NOAA, they are clerks, they are doctors, they are lawyers. They are either being told they can't come to work, they've been furloughed, or they've been compelled to go to work and they're not getting paid. I have people who are e-mailing me --


RASKIN: -- their paychecks that say "zero" on them.

HILL: Have any of the folks said to you, I want my paycheck back. I appreciate that you want to open government before you negotiate. But maybe throw the president a bone, give him a little bit of money for the wall and get me back to work. Have you heard that?

[11:25:09] RASKIN: Actually, to the extent that people address it, what they are saying is open the government and they -- but they also say we will not be held hostage as a people. We will not be held hostage as a workforce over a policy dispute. Once we go down this road of giving in to political blackmail and extortion by the president-- and we are at an unprecedented area here as with so many other things with this president -- when will it end? At that point, he will commit political extortion and blackmail over the Affordable Care Act or any other policy disagreement he has. This is an absolute violation of the separation of powers and the way things are supposed to work. All we need four Senators on the Republican side to come over and to vote with us to reopen the government. Four Senators is all we need and we can reopen the government of the United States.

HILL: Congressman, I appreciate your time today. Thank you.

RASKIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

HILL: Coming up, could President Trump meet with North Korea's lead negotiator today? And what does this mean for the possibility of a second summit?