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BuzzFeed News Alleges President Trump Directed Michael Cohen to Lie to Congress; Democratic Lawmakers React to BuzzFeed Report; Interview with Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA). Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired January 18, 2019 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[10:00:35] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Still no reaction this morning from President Trump to report that ties him directly to the very same offense for which the House of Representatives moved to impeach Richard Nixon. And two decades later, Bill Clinton.
BuzzFeed News cites two federal law enforcement officials saying that President Trump personally directed his then lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The key offense at issue here is what's known as suborning or encouraging perjury, witness tampering, obstruction of justice.
HARLOW: It is important for us to note this morning that neither CNN nor any other major news outlet has so far confirmed BuzzFeed's reporting. And President Trump's current lawyer says and I quote, "If you believe Cohen I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge." That's not an outright denial. But also it's important to note that BuzzFeed's report isn't just based on Michael Cohen. In fact Michael Cohen didn't talk to BuzzFeed for this.
It says that the special counsel is not taking Cohen's words for anything. Reportedly Cohen only confirmed what the Mueller team already knew, Jim, from other witnesses and documents. And that's key.
SCIUTTO: That's right. Shimon Prokupecz has been following the story. He joins me now in Washington.
Shimon, tell us what you've learned as you look at this.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Look, I think what Poppy -- the point that Poppy there makes is an important one. The fact that this is based not only on what could conceivably be Michael Cohen's words that the special counsel has gathered other information, they have text messages, they have documents, there is other information. They also say that other witnesses have come in from the Trump Organization and backed up these claims. That is stunning.
It is for the first time, if this is all true that we are hearing that there is other information, here is how BuzzFeed described the information in their story. And they said that the special counsel's office learned about Trump's directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company e-mails, text messages and a cache of other documents.
Cohen they say then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office. That is the special counsel. It is also the first time that we're hearing according to BuzzFeed that there have been multiple people from the Trump Organization who have been cooperating with investigators. We have heard of one who was cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office in New York. He was -- they gave him immunity specifically to their investigation.
But nonetheless, everything that we are seeing from this story would be certainly a bombshell information. If true, obviously, we ourselves have not corroborated any of this. But it is significant by any means.
SCIUTTO: Shimon Prokupecz --
HARLOW: Shimon -- yes.
SCIUTTO: Fascinating, Poppy, no question.
Well, one by one members of Congress will likely be asked about this report and some of them are already speaking up.
Let's bring in CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju.
Manu, of course Democrats only, but a number of Democrats here calling for, well, they're mentioning the word impeachment.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Some definitely are but you're hearing more about investigate particularly from the members who now wield gavels, running those powerful committees that have subpoena power that can investigate. So we are hearing from two key committee chairmen overnight about the revelations in this report saying they want to look into this further.
One, Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said, "We know the president has engaged -- the allegation that the president of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date. We will do what's necessary to find out if it's true."
Of course that referring to the fact that Michael Cohen admitted to lying before the House Intelligence Committee in his previous testimony. And did he do it at the direction of the president? Adam Schiff wants to understand if that's what happened.
And now the House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, whose committee would be in charge of any impeachment proceedings if they decide to go that route, doesn't mention the word impeachment in a tweet this morning but says, "We know the president engaged in a long pattern of obstruction, directing a subordinate to Congress is a federal crime. [10:05:07] "The House Judiciary Committee's job is to get to the
bottom of it. And we will do that work." And some members are going even farther. They are raising the specter of impeachment including Joaquin Castro, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, someone who sits on the House Intelligence Committee as well, said, "If the BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached."
Those are the comments coming from Democrats. We have not heard anything yet much from Republicans at all about this. Most will likely say let's wait for the Mueller report to come out before we cast any judgment. Democrats probably err on that side, too. True as well. But this also raises the intensity and scrutiny over that February 7th testimony of Michael Cohen. Will come before the House Oversight Committee and will be asked all these questions.
But, Jim, the question is, can he respond to these questions about the Trump Tower Moscow project because we have learned that he cannot talk about things about the Russia investigation? Does this pertain to the Russia investigation? Can he say this in open testimony or will he have to say that in classified testimony behind closed doors? We don't have an answer to that just quite yet -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: Yes. It'd certainly be a lot of pressure to ask and answer those questions.
Manu Raju on the Hill, thanks very much.
HARLOW: Let's talk about the legal and political ramifications of this report. Joining us this morning Michael Moore, former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. David Gergen, former adviser, presidential adviser to four presidents, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.
And let's focus on your work, David Gergen, first, advising President Nixon and PRESIDENT Clinton for obvious reasons this morning. You've advised those two presidents dealing with impeachment. How big is this, what we've learned from BuzzFeed this morning, David, if it's confirmed compared to everything else we learned every day?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, all long, Poppy, there has been the question of what the investigation find more than an alignment, more than a suggestion, more than for some evidence, but fragmentary evidence, or would it find the smoking gun? When the smoking gun came to light in the Nixon case, for example, on the tape recordings, he was gone very quickly from office. It didn't take very long.
CNN is properly treating this very cautiously. We don't know a lot. Until we verify this we can't go with hard stories. But if it is true, and it's a big if, this would be a smoking gun and it would be perilous for the president and for his team. And so it's big. And it's, as I said, potentially a turning point, but that we have to -- we're coming down the home stretch now, it seems to me. It's like CNN is making the right choice by trying to be very careful, very cautious before going with things that are hard. SCIUTTO: The president has made his first comment on this. And as he
often does he is quoting someone on FOX News. I'll read what the president is quoting here, quoting Kevin Corke of FOX News, "Don't forget Michael Cohen has already been convicted of perjury and fraud and as recently as this week the 'Wall Street Journal' has suggested that he may have stolen tens of thousands of dollars. Lying to reduce his jail time," says the president. "Watch this father-in-law," again trying to encourage an investigation of his father-in-law, which is a remarkable thing which is just by itself.
But to you, Michael Moore, what the president misses there is the BuzzFeed story at least claims that Robert Mueller has multiple witnesses and other proof, e-mails, electronic proof, but clearly the president's strategy as was Rudy Giuliani's last night is to just focus on Michael Cohen and call him a liar.
MICHAEL MOORE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I think that's right. I think the president misses the point that Bob Mueller is not a novice prosecutor. And so I'm not surprised at all to hear that he has information that corroborates Michael Cohen. I mean, let's face, he knows what Michael Cohen has been convicted of, he knows what he's admitted to, has been untruthful. And so it's the normal job of a prosecutor when you have a witness or a cooperator who is less than candid or has been tarnished in some way to go in and back up or build up his or her story.
So that's essentially what's happened here. So there is nothing surprising about that. The pattern that the president has is he continues to attack people, continues to attack people in the hopes that he can somehow diminish the findings of the outcome of this investigation. And I think he is going to fail at that.
What's particularly interesting, and I'll give you two big ifs, and I appreciate David's comments about being careful and we should at this point, but if the story, the BuzzFeed story is correct and if, in fact, we are to believe the attorney general's nominee -- I mean the president's nominee for attorney general, then it seems to me that it may very well be that the president has hired his own hangman.
And that is that he may very well put in place the man who has admitted now in his congressional hearings, the Senate hearings, that in fact the conduct that's alleged in the story would in fact be obstruction and would be something that would be prosecutable as a crime for supporting perjury.
[10:10:08] And that is a problem for the president going forward. This is a big story if it is in fact true. And I imagine that Michael Cohen has got -- he's got good lawyers and they are not going to put their client out front in this position of testifying before Congress without some documentary or other corroborating proof that he may have. He may have recording, we know he's recorded the president before at the time the president was a candidate. So I wouldn't be surprised at all to see that.
HARLOW: David --
SCIUTTO: The president hiring his own hangman, Poppy. That's a quite a phrase.
HARLOW: David Gergen, the key question here is obstruction. Right? Did the president attempt to obstruct justice here?
GERGEN: Yes. Yes.
HARLOW: That's really the core of it. Right? So it's not just partisan lawmakers who have questions about obstruction.
HARLOW: It is potentially the likely next attorney general who by the way, I should note --
HARLOW: -- has a very important view of whether a president can obstruct justice or not. Right? So that makes these statements during his confirmation hearing earlier this week that much more important responding to both Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic senator on the Judiciary Committee Amy Klobuchar. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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?
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.
KLOBUCHAR: OK. And --
BARR: Or any -- well, you know, any person who persuades another --
KLOBUCHAR: Any person.
KLOBUCHAR: OK. You also said that a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: David Gergen, no equivocating there. And that direct answer both times from William Barr just got a whole lot more potentially important this morning.
GERGEN: Absolutely, Poppy. And one of the reasons it got more important is that he did write a memo earlier on as we all know in which he really questioned whether these proceedings could go after Trump on obstruction of justice and said, you know, the president has plenary powers, he can do a lot of things if he is acting within the presidential constitutional power, then that is not obstruction.
But he very carefully then agreed that there were instances that when the president could obstruct justice and one of them was whether you persuade or direct, suborn perjury from someone who is appearing before Congress, that is obstruction. That is a violation of federal law. And he's very clear on that.
SCIUTTO: Michael Moore, just one thing before we go. In Mueller's sentencing memo for Cohen, the following phrasing caught our attention. It said that Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries. Just before that he talks about Cohen providing useful information regarding his contacts with the White House during 2017 to 2018.
That lines up at least in general terms with the idea that Cohen provided the special counsel with useful information about White House guidance on his testimony, does it not?
MOORE: I think it does. You know, and again, I mean, remember that Bob Mueller and his team are prosecutorial tacticians. They are not, you know, novice prosecutors coming in who don't know how to put in a memo certain information that can be both read to the defense team, to the court, to the people who are interested in that. And so I do think that you can read those details into that kind of writing.
And, you know, again, as we wait and see whether or not this story is backed up, as it stands today, at this particular hour, 10:14 in the morning, as it stands today, this is damning for the president.
HARLOW: Michael Moore, David Gergen, important Friday morning. Thanks to you both for being here.
Still to come, much more on the potential fallout over this BuzzFeed report. We're going to speak with the reporter who broke the Watergate story. Carl Bernstein joins us ahead -- Jim. SCIUTTO: Plus the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is now accusing
the Trump administration of putting members of Congress in danger by leaking details about their cancelled trip to Afghanistan. We're going to speak to a lawmaker who is supposed to be part of that delegation next.
[10:19:12] HARLOW: All right. Welcome back. So this morning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office is firing back after the president denied her use of a military plane and postponed her trip along with other members of Congress abroad including to Afghanistan. The president -- the office says that the president's decision to call off the trip, quote, "significantly increased the danger to the delegation and to the troops, security and other officials supporting the trip." That was according to the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.
Pelosi's office went on to say, quote, "We learned that the administration had leaked the commercial travel plans, as well." This as an all out war of words as well as actions has broken out in Washington between the president and the House speaker. The president this morning writes, "Why would Nancy Pelosi leave the country with other Democrats on an seven-day excursion when 800,000 great people are not getting paid?"
[10:25:06] Joining me now is Democratic Congresswoman Elaine Luria of Virginia. She is a 20-year Navy veteran and I should note the only House freshman in that delegation that was slated to visit Afghanistan.
Thank you for being with me.
REP. ELAINE LURIA (D), VIRGINIA: Well, thank you for having me.
HARLOW: First of all, thank you for your service, 20 years in the Navy and now serving this country in Congress. We really appreciate it.
LURIA: Well, thank you. And I'm glad to have the opportunity to continue to serve in a new capacity.
HARLOW: So what were you hoping to achieve by going on this trip?
LURIA: Well, the trip was a four-day trip. We were going to visit our NATO allies in Belgium. Part of our visit was to reemphasize the strength and the importance of that alliance. And we were going to then proceed to Afghanistan and meet with military troops on the ground, local leaders and assess the conditions of our troops and the security situation on the ground. And it really was a vital part of our oversight as Congress to be able to hear those voices on the ground. And, you know, myself as a new member of both the House Armed Services Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee I thought this was a very, very important opportunity for me to learn and gather the information necessary to do my job effectively. HARLOW: And as I understand, it has been rescheduled. You don't know
when yet. But you do plan to go when the government is back open, is that correct?
LURIA: There are plans to travel in the future.
LURIA: But I know some details have been made and, you know, obviously, these trips are not normally announced ahead of time for security reasons.
LURIA: And that is one of the complications that we had this time. We were pushing forward with the travel and had all of our arrangements ready to go today via commercial air. But due to the security situation and the disclosure of those travel plans it really became prudent to not go at this time.
HARLOW: So just to be clear, after the president pulled the use of a military plane for this you, Nancy Pelosi, the delegation made plans and actually booked to fly commercial but then decided not to once that was added in the president's statement? Is that right?
LURIA: That's correct. We did continue making plans at that point to travel solely to Afghanistan. We thought it was very important that we make the trip and conduct our responsibilities of congressional oversight. And I think, you know, one of the issues with this really front and foremost for the whole delegation is that, you know, Congress has this responsibility. And it is not the place of the executive branch to usurp that or to interrupt travel plans for the congressional delegation in order to do their job.
HARLOW: It is the responsibility as you note of Congress in terms of an oversight role here and being informed and seeing what you can see on the ground. But I do want your response to the president's point this morning. Right? And I read part of his tweet to our viewers just a moment ago. But again he said, "Why would Nancy Pelosi leave the country with other Democrats on a seven-day excursion when 800,000 great people are not getting paid?"
Does he have a point? Should this be something that should wait, that you and other members of Congress shouldn't leave the country while you are trying to negotiate a deal to get the government back open?
LURIA: Well, you know, I think you can put simply that Congress can do more than one thing at a time. We can walk and chew gum. I think that you can continue --
HARLOW: Yes, but you can't walk and --
HARLOW: I hear you. But you can't walk -- I mean, she is key, right, in these negotiations? She can't go to a meeting at the White House, for example, talk to the president directly if she is away on a seven- day trip. Do you see that point?
LURIA: She couldn't be there personally but obviously technology does allow communication around the world. And it was not a seven-day trip. We were going to be back in time for the next series of votes.
LURIA: And I really like to reiterate that, you know, on our side in the House since the first day of the session we voted nine times to reopen the government. And we've done that in every way possible through continuing resolutions, through separate appropriations bills. And we are ready to open the government. We want the government open again. We want to pay these 800,000 workers who are in fact protecting our country and our national security. It's the Border Patrol, it's the TSA, the customs officials and many other agencies who are not able to provide those vital services.
I have, you know, been in my district last weekend and met with our Coast Guard. They significantly reduced their operations. Normally they would have routine patrols and now --
LURIA: They're only responding to emergency search and rescue missions. And that's really degraded their effectiveness and if you want to look at an incident that happened just in our district very recently, there was an incident where a vessel struck a jetting. Four people were rescued. They were seriously injured. And with our Coast Guard not on station to respond to those, those could have been tragic casualties.
HARLOW: And not getting paid, I mean, to protect this country.
HARLOW: The Coast Guard. Let me ask you finally about the BuzzFeed, the explosive allegations from BuzzFeed News this morning, alleging that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the extent and timeline on the Trump Moscow Tower proposal. Where do you fall in terms of whether you think that should change Democrats' calculations to introduce Articles of Impeachment against the president?
[10:25:07] Are you in the camp that says OK, if true this is important, but let's hold off for any sort of impeachment proceedings until we get the Mueller report, or do believe this changes things? Do you believe that Mueller should turn over this part of his findings to Congress now, as Senator Chris Murphy has asked for?
LURIA: Well, I think that we need to get to the bottom of these allegations. They are late breaking and there is not a lot of concrete evidence known. We need to protect the Mueller investigation. And that's of utmost importance. And once I have the facts from that investigation then I can comment further on what I think the next steps are. HARLOW: So it sounds like you'd be in the camp of Democrats who say,
you know, important to know. Let's get to the bottom of it, but don't urge Mueller right now to turn this part over. Is that right?
LURIA: I think that the investigation needs to continue and that --
LURIA: An early release of information that could compromise the process of the investigation is potentially, you know, not called for and I think that we need to know more facts before we call for any subsequent action.
Congresswoman Elaine Luria, thank you. And again thank you for your two decades of service to this country in the Navy. We appreciate it.
LURIA: Well, thank you for the opportunity.
HARLOW: Of course. We'll be right back.