Return to Transcripts main page


BuzzFeed News: President Trump Directed Michael Cohen to Lie to Congress About Moscow Tower Project; Trump Cancels Pelosi's Trip Amid Shutdown Fight; Trump, Pelosi Battle Intensifies Amid Stalemate. Aired 9-9:30

Aired January 18, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:11] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Friday morning to you. A busy one. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. And the very deep forest of scandals and allegations, investigations and improprieties surrounding the 45th president. This morning there is one tree that stands above the rest.

This morning BuzzFeed is reporting that President Trump personally directed his longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress under oath to commit perjury. Again, they are reporting this was a directive.

We should note CNN has not independently confirmed BuzzFeed's reporting nor for that matter has anyone else. According to BuzzFeed the president suborned perjury. It is the very offense contained in the First Article of Impeachment against President Nixon in 1974.

SCIUTTO: By way of response President Trump's current lawyer Rudy Giuliani says, and we're quoting here, "If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge." But citing two federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation, BuzzFeed says that Cohen only confirmed what the special counsel already knew from other means. That is that Robert Mueller has more than just Michael Cohen's word on this reportedly.

However, if this is confirmed we should note that the subject of Cohen's dishonest testimony was the Trump Organization's attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, attempts that carried on throughout the campaign for president and an issue that is central to the Russia investigation.

This morning the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee just a short time ago vowing to get to the bottom of it. Much more on that in just a moment. But we want to begin with CNN's Shimon Prokupecz who's been following this story.

So, again, noting that CNN has not confirmed this as well nor have other outlets to this point, what is new in the story?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: I think one of the most damning things in all of this is that there is other evidence according to BuzzFeed than just Michael Cohen's own words. And I think that is what is so significant if this reporting is true. And let's look at some of that, right? And BuzzFeed is saying that from this directive that Trump gave to Cohen to lie to Congress that investigators have pieced together other information.

So they have text messages, they have a cache of other documents is what BuzzFeed is saying. And then they say that Cohen acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with the special counsel. Basically saying that yes, you know, this is what the president told me to do. And the significant thing in this part of the story obviously is that there is other information. The other thing is that what they are saying, you know, that Michael Cohen has basically told the special counsel that Trump directed him to do this, to lie to Congress, and that also he had provided details of the conversations about the project with the president and Ivanka and Donald Trump, Jr. That is significant because Don Jr. and Ivanka have always denied any substantial participation, anything that has to do with this project.

SCIUTTO: Right. And listen, there is a lot going on in this story here. But we've seen a response now from Ivanka at least to this.

PROKUPECZ: Yes. Well, this is coming from the spokesperson for her attorney. And essentially they are denying that she had any big role in this project because the BuzzFeed story is saying that she did have a much bigger role. And so here's what the spokesperson for Ivanka Trump's attorney said, says that, "Miss Trump did not know about this proposal until after a nonbinding letter of intent had been signed, never talked to anyone outside the organization about the proposal, never visited the prospective project cite and even internally was only minimally involved."


PROKUPECZ: Again important that this sort of contradicts obviously what the story is saying that she had a bigger role in this. The bottom line here that if this is the case that the special counsel is sitting on all of this information and we're just now learning about this, I think certainly members of Congress are going to have an issue with this because this is much different than a Russia collusion investigation where we're always concerned about outing sources and methods.

This is information that clearly would come either from subpoenas or when they executed a search warrant on Michael Cohen's office. You would think this information would be out there.


PROKUPECZ: Already get to members of Congress.

SCIUTTO: And you see demands from members of Congress saying that if this is true come out now.


SCIUTTO: Because we have to make an immediate judgment on that. But again that's a big if. Shimon Prokupecz, thanks very much. Poppy?

HARLOW: Reaction from the Hill to all of this is just coming in this morning. Democrat House judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler making his opinion very clear. Let me read you what he writes this morning, "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. We will work to do that." Obviously he has a very powerful position to do that now.

[09:05:04] Other Democratic lawmakers not holding back. Congressman Joaquin Castro tweeting, "President Trump must resign or be impeached." Congressman David Cicilline, quote, "This is obstruction of justice, period, full stop." California Congressman Ted Lieu writing -- a Democrat again, "It's time for the House Judiciary Committee to start holding hearings to establish a record of whether POTUS has committed high crimes."

Again important to know we don't have reaction from Republican lawmakers on this yet. This morning, though, one will join us, Jim, as you know very shortly here. And again just to reiterate this is reporting from BuzzFeed that has not been confirmed by CNN nor has it been confirmed yet by any other outlet.

SCIUTTO: It's important to note that. Let's bring in former FBI special agent Josh Campbell and former federal prosecutor Elie Honig.

Josh, noting the if, if this were confirmed to be true, put this into context for us, the significance here. And we should note this would not be the first time that Michael Cohen has said -- in fact, he pleaded guilty to a crime, a campaign finance crime that he says the president directed him to do. That being those payments to Stormy Daniels, hush money in effect. So if this were true as well, why is this particularly significant?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: So there is a lot to unpack here. And the first thing I would say is obviously we're seeing reaction from Democratic lawmakers. The thing I would ask them to do is slow your roll right now because these talks of impeachment and, you know, removing the president and obstruction of justice, they're skipping an important step and that's the investigation.

Now again we've mentioned that this is BuzzFeed reporting. We haven't independently confirmed it ourselves. And they have to understand it as well that they have to investigate. I think Congressman Ted Lieu had it right there when he said, we should hold hearings, which is obviously within their purview. But folks should realize that there are additional steps here.

Now let's talk about that investigation. As you mentioned, Michael Cohen is on record now admitting to lying. And at the end of the day we're going to have here are two people who are liars telling a different story. We have Michael Cohen who has admitted to lying. We have the president who we know lies regularly. And so at the end of the day it will come down to what was in that reporting as far as text messages, e-mails, communications between people in Trump orbit talking about this.

And that's the key aspect of the investigation because absent some other corroborating information this is just people saying things and it's a he said-he said.

HARLOW: Yes. And you know, that's really important because it's -- but it's beyond that, as you know, Josh. I mean, it's beyond the he said-he said. This reporting, when you read through the full BuzzFeed report points to interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization. Internal company e-mails, text messages and a, quote, "cache of other documents."

Now it's also important to note, you know, as far as we know, Jim, right, the president doesn't send e-mails, at least now and isn't an avid texter.

Elie, to you, on the legal issue here and the question of Articles of Impeachment here should this story be completely factual. Word for word, you have parallels here with the First Article of Impeachment used, passed by the House Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon. Let me pull it up on the screen. Against former President Nixon. It accuses Nixon in part of, quote, "approving, condoning, acquiescing in and counseling witnesses with respect to giving up false or misleading testimony in judicial and congressional proceedings."

Should House members decide to move forward with Articles of Impeachment, would this be a template?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So it could well be, Poppy. Impeachment is of course a political judgment based on high crimes and misdemeanors. So I go to the question, do we have a crime here? If true, this is the clearest and cleanest example we have yet of this president committing a federal crime. In fact, I'd say several federal crimes while in office.

The federal crimes that would be implicated here include obstruction of justice, witness tampering, perjury, conspiracy. All of those things would be in play if this is proven out. And I think the big question, as Jim and Josh were just talking about, is, is this going to be more than a he said-he said? Clearly Rudy Giuliani is taking the strategic approach of trying to cast that it's just one person's word against another.

He had a quote about if you believe Michael Cohen, I'll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, that kind of thing. But I think just reading between the lines here, there appears to be quite a bit of information that backs up Michael Cohen. Robert Mueller, remember, when Michael Cohen was sentenced Robert Mueller alluded to this. He said in the sentencing memo that Michael Cohen had provided information regarding the preparing and circulating of Cohen's response to the congressional inquiries.

The fact that Mueller was willing to put that in print is a hint to me, an indicator that he has something more than Michael Cohen's information. That he has something to back it up. I do not believe Robert Mueller or my former colleagues at the Southern District would put that in writing unless they felt they had something more than Michael Cohen's say-so to back it up.

SCIUTTO: Elie, it's why we have you on the air. That is a great catch there from Mueller's previous releases here.

Josh Campbell, again, with the if, if this is substantiated let's go back to the William Barr hearings just a few days ago because Republicans and Democrats, but Republicans as well, set this up with the AG nominee as an impeachable offense. Have a listen.


[09:10:05] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: So if there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Yes, under that -- under an obstruction statute, yes.

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

BARR: Right.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: In your memo, you talked about the Comey decision. And you talk about obstruction of justice and you already went over that, which I appreciate. You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?

BARR: The -- yes.


BARR: Or any -- well, you know, any person who persuades another --

KLOBUCHAR: Any person.

BARR: Yes.

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.



SCIUTTO: Josh Campbell, those were not equivocal answers there from the president's own nominee to attorney general.

CAMPBELL: That's right. We're in this era of hyper partisanship and polarization. People have looked at, for example, the allegation of collusion. Well, what is that? Is that cooperation? Is that illegal? This is not that. I think it is nonpartisan. And I think both sides, Republicans and Democrats would agree that obstruction of justice is illegal and it is wrong. And when you're lying to Congress or your suborning perjury, asking someone else to lie to Congress, that's illegal, full stop. There is no shade of gray there.

And that's what makes this so troubling if these allegations actually pan out and what makes it so explosive is that you have the president of the United States asking someone or telling someone, directing them to lie to the legislative branch of government. We have the attorney general there on record -- the nominee, rather. And if and -- should he be confirmed, he will be on record indicating that that is obstruction. It's not something that he would stand for which obviously would put him in the position now of what do you do about it.


CAMPBELL: But I think it was key to lawmakers, got him on the record there, because that is something obviously we're going to continue to watch.

HARLOW: Elie, to the old adage, you know, it's not necessarily the crime, it's the cover-up, right? I mean, ongoing attempts, alleged attempts to curry favor with a hostile power while running for president are one thing. Right? But when it comes to actual potential impeachment proceedings it's almost incidental. Right? Because the real offense here would be lying about and instructing someone to lie about it to Congress under oath.

HONIG: Yes, here I actually think it's both the cover-up and the crime. In the narrower view we have the president sitting in a room apparently instructing Michael Cohen and it sounds like there may have been others in on it, you're going into the Senate and you're going to lie. OK, that's part of the cover-up. That's a crime, too. But if we look at the bigger picture, I would argue it relates to collusion as well because remember, what was the substance of Michael Cohen's false testimony to Congress?

He lied and said the Moscow deal, Trump's efforts to build a $100 million skyscraper in Moscow were over as of January 2016. In fact, they carried into June of 2016. Critical phases of the election. And to me that goes to the larger question of collusion between the campaign and Russia. Why would -- why did Donald Trump want Russian help? Why did the Russians want to help Trump win the election? Because he was trying to build an enormous skyscraper in Moscow and he needed governmental approvals.


CAMPBELL: That explains the motive behind the collusion. So I think this instance could go be both a crime in its own right and could go to the larger collusion picture.

SCIUTTO: It's a great point. Because again you could not claim this is a tangential issue as has been claimed about, say, hush money payments. This goes right to Russia, one, and the issue at least the appearance of a quid pro quo, Poppy. I mean, it's something we're certainly going to follow.

HARLOW: Yes. We're not going anywhere.

Josh Campbell, Elie Honig, thank you for the expertise.

We're staying on top of all these developments because there are more layers to this reporting that are important to explain. And we're waiting for the president, will he respond? No doubt that's the first question he or his team will be asked about this morning. Stay with us.

SCIUTTO: Plus, Pelosi versus the president. The ugly battle gets uglier as the shutdown stalemate enters day 28th. That's four weeks.


[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Welcome back. A new "BuzzFeed" story cites two law enforcement sources saying that the president directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about a project in Russia, Trump Tower project in Moscow.

Cnn has not confirmed that story, nor have other outlets. However, if true, it would be significant, it would be a crime.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Again, Cnn has independently confirmed this. President Trump's current lawyer Rudy Giuliani has responded, implying it's not believable story, but not an outright denial.

But attacking the credibility, Jim, of Michael Cohen who by the way is not the only, you know, voice in this story. Let's talk more about what this could mean for the president. Joining us now, Cnn political analyst Jackie Kucinich, Washington Bureau Chief for "The Daily Beast" and Cnn political commentator Scott Jennings, former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Good morning to you.


HARLOW: Scott, to you first, look, if this is true, it is damning, it is a federal offense, it is an impeachable offense if the president, like this report lays out, directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about something very significant, and that is the timing of when this project would be so financially beneficial to the president, then candidate Trump extended far beyond January of 2016.

That's a serious issue, no response from the president this morning. What's your read?

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO GEORGE WALKER BUSH: Yes, it would be serious if it's true. And I think if I were the president this morning, I would deny it myself. I wouldn't leave it to a spokesperson.

I think this kind of a story warrants a denial from the president himself. I would just say, there's a paragraph in this story that's doing an awful lot of work. It's nebulous about the evidence that supposedly corroborates what Cohen has said. The reporter admits he hasn't personally seen the evidence. And so while I completely agree with you that if any of this is true, it would be extremely serious.

[09:20:00] I'm naturally a skeptical person, and so before anyone has seen this evidence, including the reporter, you've got all this Democrats now who are -- you know, want to jump off the ledge on impeachment. And my political advice to them would be --

HARLOW: Well, but --

JENNINGS: Slow down before you get upfront --

HARLOW: Scott, it does source two sources which one of the "BuzzFeed" reporters here told "NEW DAY" just about an hour ago, they have more sources that were off the record, right?

They've only got these two sources confirming it that they could put on the record. But that means that they had backup sources on this as well. And they do point to e-mails and text messages and other documentary evidence here.

JENNINGS: They point to it, but they don't describe it, they haven't seen it and they don't know exactly what that evidence is. Look, I'm not saying these reporters have done anything wrong --

HARLOW: Yes --

JENNINGS: These may all be a 100 percent true. I'm just saying that I'm naturally skeptical, and so none of us have seen this evidence, and I want to see it before you know, I start making, you know, crazy predictions about going down an impeachment road or anything else that could happen.

SCIUTTO: Jackie Kucinich, let's be clear here though. This does not come out of nowhere, right? Michael Cohen has already pleaded to a crime that was substantiated in court. And that being that the president directed him to break campaign finance law to make hush money payments to Stormy Daniels during -- just prior to the election.

"Wall Street Journal" reported yesterday that Michael Cohen has said that the president directed him to pay money to fix polls prior to the election. So, to be clear, the president directing his fixture to if not break the law to do shady stuff is not -- this is not the first time we've heard that.

KUCINICH: Well, right, and it goes beyond Michael Cohen's word which we should be skeptical of. He did lie to Congress, he's a convicted felon. You had, you know, the man he paid yesterday in a -- with a Wal-Mart bag and a boxing glove who was saying that this occurred in that "Wall Street Journal" story. So I do agree with Scott though that once -- and you're hearing this

from a member of Congress. The ones who aren't calling for impeachment, saying that they need to see the evidence yet because they --


KUCINICH: Know if they go forward with impeachment, it has to be rock solid. They can't, you know, shoot and then aim on something this important. Which is why you're hearing people like Jerry Nadler; the House Judiciary Chairman say yes, this is -- this is problematic.

I don't have the tweet in front of me, and we're going to do our job. And I think you're going to hear more of that, not necessarily from rank-and-file members, but from the leadership of the party.

SCIUTTO: Scott, I wonder if I could ask you this. Again, this isn't if. But if Bob Mueller has evidence of this and corroborated evidence beyond Michael Cohen, some Democrats are saying show us your cards now. You know, let's not wait until the final report because this by itself is significant enough. Would you agree with that?

JENNINGS: Actually I do agree with it. The Mueller investigation has gone on, you know, for a very long time. The American people are waiting for this thing to end. We want to know what the Russians tried to do to influence the election. We want to know anything else that has turned up.

If this is part of what has turned up, and it, you know, obviously would ramp this up to a very serious level. I think waiting another three, six, nine, twelve months to me -- if I were a member of Congress in either party, that would make me very upset.

So I actually agree that with the Democrat who said that -- and my suspicion is a lot of Republicans would agree. And they would --


JENNINGS: Say, yes, if you've got something rock solid, if you've got something like this that you could bring forward today, you need to go ahead and get it up on the Hill. So I think that's a reasonable position, and I would probably take the same if I were in Congress today.

SCIUTTO: Scott and Jackie, thanks very much as always. Coming up, and still ongoing, political battle between President Trump and Nancy Pelosi getting more heated. So heated in fact that one adviser is calling it, quote, "King Kong versus Godzilla".


HARLOW: All right, unfortunately, we can't say a deal has been made, and actually don't expect a shutdown deal in the next few days. Lawmakers are already out of town. Another sign no deal in sight at least in the near term. The battle between the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has

taken a very public and ugly turn. The president nixed Pelosi's war zone trip after she said that he should delay his State of the Union address until the government is back open.

He says he delayed her trip on a military plane because of the shutdown. But critics say it looks like payback. Just hours after the announcement, the first lady took an Air Force jet to Mar-a-Lago. You see it there landing last night. But the president also canceled the entire U.S. delegation trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Let's go to Phil Mattingly, he joins us now. You know, if you look at some of the criticism here, I mean from Lindsey Graham, also John Cornyn, they both don't like how this is looking from Pelosi or the president.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think when you get into it, Lindsey Graham putting out a statement saying, one sophomore move doesn't justify another sophomore move, I'm paraphrasing a little bit there.

Senator John Cornyn also kind of -- almost referencing that as well or somewhat equating his feelings to that. It underscores something that's become very apparent here on Capitol Hill, Poppy, and that is regardless of party, everybody is just down and nobody seems to know the way out and everybody recognizes on the rank and file side at least.

That where leadership stands and where the president stands, where the White House stands. The positions are so diametrically opposed to one another, and given that we are already almost four weeks into a government shutdown. The fact that they're still in those positions today, there are no talks scheduled, there are no proposals being traded back and forth.

I'm told there are no phone calls that are currently scheduled. Most senators and members of Congress have gone home for the weekend at this point in time. And there's just this recognition that this -- I think everything is in a really bad place right now in terms of actually resolving this issue.

And if you wanted to know maybe postponing the State of the Union and postponing a (INAUDIBLE) would loosen things up a little bit. While the president is out tweeting this morning, why would Nancy Pelosi leave the country with other Democrats on a seven-day excursion when 800,000 --