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Trump Directed Cohen to Lie; Possible Impeachable Offense; Government Shutdown Continues. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 18, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:25] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

A potential blockbuster. "BuzzFeed" reports the feds have evidence the president told his lawyer to lie to Congress about his Russia business dealings. If true, it's a clause (ph) we're hearing a lot today, followed by words like "obstruction" and "impeachment."

Plus, add a personal feud to the border wall policy divide at the core of the government shutdown. The president and the speaker sparring anew today as the shutdown approaches the one-month mark and the stresses on those not getting paid intensify.

And for several Democrats running for president in 2020 begins with an apology.


REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), 2020 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong. And worse, they were very hurtful to people in the LGBTQ community and to their loved ones.


KING: We begin the hour with a show-stopping report from "BuzzFeed" that if true could cost the president his job. The headline, President Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow Tower project. "BuzzFeed" citing two law enforcement officials involved in the Cohen investigation. They say that the president personally instructed Cohen to lie about when negotiations on the Trump Tower Moscow project ended. "BuzzFeed" reports that attorneys close to the administration helped Cohen prepare that false testimony. "BuzzFeed" goes on to say that Cohen gave the president and the president's children, Donald Trump Junior and Ivanka, quote, regular, detailed updates about the project.

"BuzzFeed" also says the president wanted to go to Russia to meet Vladimir Putin and to cement negotiations over the building. Make it happen, "BuzzFeed" sources say is what Trump told Michael Cohen.

Now, importantly, CNN has been unable to independently corroborate the "BuzzFeed" account. But, also important, some of the new details do closely follow the contours of court documents from the Russia special counsel. The president on Twitter today says Cohen, quote, is lying to reduce his jail time. Make note, the president did not deny the specifics of the report, nor did the White House Spokesman Hogan Gidley.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're saying the president did not tell Michael Cohen to do that?

GIDLEY: I'm telling you right now this is exactly why the president refuses to give any credence or credibility to news outlets because they have no ability to corroborate anything they're putting out there. Instead, they're just using innuendo and shady sources --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that was not a -- that was not a denial of my question.

GIDLEY: No, the -- but the premise is ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That the president personally directed his long- time attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations involving the Trump Tower. Is that true or false?

GIDLEY: Right, but the president's attorney also addressed this. I'm not going to -- I'm not going to give any credence or credibility to Michael Cohen.


KING: With me today to share their reporting and their insights, Karoun Demirjian with "The Washington Post," CNN's Shimon Prokupecz, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Shan Wu, and Kim Wehle, whose legal work includes being a former member of the White House independent counsel.

Let me start with you, Shimon, because you've spent months and months and months on this investigation.

We have not been independently able to confirm some of the details here. The key one being that they say they have documents to back this up. It does track what we've seen in some of the court filings, but it takes it to a special point, if you will, in saying they have documentary evidence that the president and people around the president were aware Cohen was going to lie to Congress and were part of getting him to lie to Congress.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right, and that's what makes this so stunning. This is just not the word of Michael Cohen. You know, we've had these kinds of stories before, and it usually comes from the mouth of Michael Cohen.

This is much different. This is on a completely different level. The idea that there are texts and e-mails from the Trump organization, that there have been other witnesses who have come before Mueller to substantiate some of this is certainly something that we've never seen before.

KING: So we have -- in any of these developments, we have two conversations, one's political and one's legal.

Politically, one would think it would be the interest of the president of the United States, who's in a very difficult moment because of other things happening anyway during his presidency, and then he has this cloud. Politically, you would think if this is not true we would have had a statement either from the president or from his lawyer or from his press secretary saying the president categorically denies this. He never, nor did anyone around him, ever tell Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. This is false.

We don't have that statement. Is there a legal reason? Is there -- because you know the Mueller investigation is going on, is there some legal reason that even if you were 100 percent convinced this is false that you would not put out that statement, or does the fact that we don't have that statement hours after this report hit, curious?

[12:05:01] SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is curious. I think there are two things at play here.

First, as a lawyer, it's like a physician, do no harm. You don't want to put some position out there that later you think maybe undercut that's going to hurt the client. And this is a situation where they can never get their story straight because the client constantly changes it. So caution makes sense.

But really importantly, that "BuzzFeed" story references that lawyers close to the administration had been involved in the preparation. So, folks may be quite because they're afraid of their own liability right now.

KIM WEHLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes, I think what's interesting about this, I mean we can say we don't know for sure. You said you couldn't corroborate this. But as was mentioned, the special counsel did indicate in filings that both Manafort and Cohen had been in communications with the White House. So there's reason to believe that this is accurate.

I think -- I agree with Shan that given that the president and the White House shifts its stories, it's possible people are being very cautious. But knowing Trump himself, that's what's unusual, that he's coming out and saying it didn't happen.

KING: Well, I just -- I just want to be very clear about this because you wait and you watch the responses and they're -- you know, they're saying Michael Cohen's a liar. That's true, That's true. Michael Cohen is not the best witness. Bob Mueller would never bring a case with Michael Cohen as his only witness. You would have to have backup witnesses and backup documentation, as we learned from the Manafort trial and on separate credibility issues and the like. But there's no legal reason the president cannot issue a statement

saying this did not happen, specifically address the allegation as opposed to Michael Cohen's a liar. There's no legal reason.


WEHLE: Unless he's worried about suborning (ph) additional perjury.

WU: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: Unless there's a very big, legal reason --

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: Which is that it's probably true, right?

KING: Yes, unless there's the reason. Unless there's the reason, right.

DEMIRJIAN: Exactly. In which case you would want to go and then be perjuring in open forum to basically say this never happened.

I mean, look, at this point I think what you've got is everybody in D.C. leaping on this story now to try to corroborate it, to try to see if it's true. Whether you're talking about other news outlets or everybody on Capitol Hill that is expecting Michael Cohen to come down in two and a half weeks to testify both in open and behind closed doors, I think everybody's scrambling to look for these corroborating documents and interviews as well to figure out if there is substance here because it seems like there's a lot of substance behind Michael Cohen if the story's true.

KING: And it is important to say, if true, we need to do more reporting on this, very important to say if true because this could cost -- if this is true, the president's going to lose his job.

WU: It's done. Lights out, right? Yes.

KING: If this is true, that is the thing.

But, you know, so whoa --

WEHLE: Historically it's a beeline to impeachment, right?

KING: Right. Right.

WEHLE: For both Nixon, as well as Clinton. And people have made that distinction in private conversations with me, listen, we don't have suborning prudery, we don't have clear obstruction in asking witnesses to lie. If we've crossed that line, I think people on both sides of the political spectrum, from the legal standpoint, has to say that this -- this bears on high crimes and misdemeanor.

DEMIRJIAN: And that's why, as The Hill investigation continues, it's going to be really interesting to see how the Republicans start to creek. And if they shift. And if you see little coming to Jesus moments with some of the people who have been stalwart defenders of the president because they're going to have to take votes to impeach, if, if, if this gets to that, which nobody's getting to that point quite yet.

KING: Yes, let's keep the if -- yes, as you -- as you well know from your -- the private statements from Republicans are very different -- for many Republicans are very different from the public statements of Republicans, but they want -- they want and they deserve to see the proof.


KING: We'll come back to that in a minute.

I want to just show the parallels here. This is from "BuzzFeed" news.

The sources said Trump and his children, Ivanka and Donald Trump Junior, received regular detailed updates about the real estate development form Cohen, whom they put in charge of the project.

And in the Mueller criminal information against Cohen, we do know this, Cohen discussed the status and progress of the Moscow project with Individual 1, that's the president, on more than three occasions. Cohen claimed to the committee, and he briefed -- and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the company about the project.

So it does track. It's sort of the next step, if you will, if you look at it. So this is not out of the blue.

WU: No. And I think to the question of the credibility of Cohen here, one thing that's important to realize, as Shimon pointed out, there's other evidence that sounds like he was confronted with before he came up with the statement. It's not like he's some jailhouse snitch making things up just to help himself.

But also, seasoned prosecutors have, in essence, vouched for his credibility at this point. At his sentencing, Mueller's people said he's done a good job, he's credible with what he told us. And the Southern District did not attack that. They attacked his former actions as being illegal, but they didn't go after him saying you haven't given credible information.

PROKUPECZ: What's interesting, John, if we go back to the Southern District. The Southern District, when they did the plea agreement and the filings, they implicated the president in that crime, right?

KING: The campaign finance.

PROKUPECZ: Right, in the campaign finance. When Mueller files his plea and the charges against Michael Cohen for lying to Congress, they don't go -- they don't take that step in their filing. They don't implicate the president. They never say Michael Cohen was directed to lie by -the - by the president. I think that could be telling for us. That's why I think there are still a lot of questions about this story because what -- why wouldn't Mueller, if they had the goods at that point -- there could be a reason why Mueller chose not to put that in and not use that strong language as the Southern District did in their filing. It's a question that I certainly have been asking and I have found interesting.

KING: I think part -- part of it, if you talk to people close to him, not -- people who know him, not people close to the investigation, they say that he's an institutional guy. This is the president of the United States. He's going to do it all at once, not drip drab. But it's a great point as you look at it.

[12:10:05] I just want to come back to one more thing here. "BuzzFeed" reports, quote, 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 then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

Now, again, in the Mueller sentencing memo for Cohen, it touches on some of this. The information provided by Cohen about the Moscow project in these proffer sessions is consistent with and corroborated by other information obtained in the course of the special counsel's office investigation.

So they make clear they have backup.

Forgive me, Cohen testified on September 19, 2017. That was in the works for a while. Everybody involved knows about this investigation at that point for well over a year. Text, e-mails, documents? I guess we will never learn from Oliver North? Is that the point here?

WEHLE: Well, it's like Rick Gates and the Manafort trial. I mean they had all kinds of information that backed up what the allegations were. So the fact that Rick Gates himself was a criminal, didn't sway the jury into basically walking away. And we have -- if this is the case, this is going to be an easy, I think, factual thing to lay down, predicates to lay down, unlike the campaign finance, which the argument's been that's a squishy crime, it's not a real crime. This idea of collusion/corruption, quid pro quos. This is stuff, I think it's easier to get around If they have what e-mails that say -- that make these requests, that's going to be tough, I think, for Republicans and Democrats both to sidestep.

DEMIRJIAN: And you just had Bill Barr, the nominee for the new attorney general, on The Hill today and being grilled about what counts as obstruction of justice. And he basically got backed into a corner like -- to say, this is it.

WEHLE: Klobuchar, yes.

DEMIRJIAN: Not just Klobuchar, Graham too, and he was reiterating it. And so you have that right there where you've got the person who's in charge of overseeing Mueller, if he gets confirmed, which seems likely, saying, this is that bad thing that I was saying you cannot do. That's problematic if Republicans are going to try to break with that then on top of everything else, their natural inclination towards being loyal to the president.

KING: Right. Again, we'll get more on this as we talk ahead. Some Democrats are saying the special counsel should show his cards now if he has such damning information. We'll talk about that. The president certainly has an innocent until proven guilty, but it's striking that the statements have not addressed the specifics. More on this as we come.

Also, some other big news happening. This just in to us. President Trump is going to meet with North Korea's top negotiator. The negotiator was at the State Department to see the secretary of state. He's now at the White House to talk to the president. On the table, of course, would there be a second summit between the president and Kim Jong-un.

We'll be right back.


[12:16:34] KING: The political fallout from the big "BuzzFeed" report was immediate, adding new intensity to the already strong investigate or impeach tensions among the now majority House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the most important player here. And a key Pelosi ally, the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, says priority one is to see if there's any hard evidence the president told his long- time lawyer to lie to Congress. Quoting a tweet from Nadler this morning, we know that the president was 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.

Now, how much Congress can learn while the federal investigations are still underway is a pretty big question. Former Trump fixer, Michael Cohen, the man at the center of this accusation, is due on The Hill early next month, but the special counsel or other prosecutors could well demand that some topics stay off limits for now. Yet, Democrats read this report and see a potential tipping point.


REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, I mean, this is obviously a very, very serious report. If true, this is, I think, the most serious threat to the Trump presidency that we've seen so far. And that's saying something because we've seen a lot.

But this is obstruction of justice. If these facts are true, this is subordinating perjury. I think there's no question it's an impeachable offense.


KING: Karoun Demirjian of "The Post" is still with us. Also joining the conversation, Julie Pace with "The Associated Press," Olivier Knox with Sirius XM, and Amy Walter of "The Cook Political Report" and WNYC.

Again, I want to add the caveat, and most of the politicians are doing it too, if true, if true.

Timing always matters at moments like this and we're just weeks into the new Democratic majority. Some of the newer, more progressive members have already been stirring, why wait? Will the cautious approach of the speaker carry the day?

AMY WALTER, NATIONAL EDITOR, "THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT": Well, it's interesting, I had a conversation earlier today with Joaquin Castro, the congressman from Texas who sits on the Intel Committee, who also said something similar to Rep. Cicilline, if true. And I said, well, how are we going to know if this is true? Don't we have to wait ultimately for the report from Robert Mueller? And his response was basically, I mean, that's great, yes, we could, but we also now can investigate. There are all these different committees. And things that are going to come out of testimony, whether it's Michael Cohen's or any other evidence that we get over the course of these investigations, the press can also dig into and we may -- they may find more evidence.

So what I took away from that conversation was, maybe we don't totally need to wait for Mueller before we start pushing forward. Not saying that it's going to happen, but it -- you could sort of get to the we don't -- we can find enough from these other vehicles.

KING: Right, because they -- a, they have their own views, and, b, they respond to their constituents.

WALTER: That's right.

KING: And the more liberal members who come from districts where, you know, Trump is toxic to begin with, now see a headline like this and they say, what are you waiting for? You know, they -- for any number of reasons they don't like him.

You mentioned Joaquin Castro, so let me just go through some of these. He tweets last night, if the "BuzzFeed" story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached. Ted Lieu, again a Trump critic, this stunning Trump Tower Moscow story establishes a clear case of obstruction of justice, a felony. I've lost count now how many times at real Donald Trump has engaged in obstruction of justice. Oh, FYI, the first article of impeachment for Richard Nixon was obstruction of justice.

So this is bubbling among the Democrats, understandably. Isn't the challenge for the leadership, though, to say, we will have our day --


KING: Let Bob Mueller have his first?

[12:20:00] PACE: Well, what Pelosi has been saying all along is, if there is hard evidence. I mean she has been a bit more restrained than members of her caucus where she said we want to see what comes out of the Mueller report. I think one of the challenges she's going to have is that, in this instance, the accusation is that Trump ordered someone to lie to Congress. So do lawmakers take that even more personally? That's not ordering someone to even lie to Bob Mueller. It's to lie to their own rank and file. I think you're seeing some of that. They feel like they take this a little more personally. But I do think if there ends up being hard evidence of this, that is going to make it really difficult for Pelosi on hold off her caucus because it would appear that this one is pretty cut and dry if there is evidence to back it up.

DEMIRJIAN: Yes, I think that at this point it's significant that someone like Castro, who's an active member of the House Intelligence Committee said that, but you haven't seen Adam Schiff say it. You have not seen Jerry Nadler say it. You have not seen Nancy Pelosi say it. And I would bet a lot that they're not going to --

KING: Right. And to --

DEMIRJIAN: Until they actually hold those e-mails in their hand, because they need to make sure that they're not just pleasing their base on this. They need to make sure that they can get enough backing in the Senate, even if it doesn't work, that they've got cover from the Republicans, because they've got to worry about their moderates too.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: And they don't gain anything by doing this early. And as long as Mueller's report is more or less likely going to come out before the end of this Congress, they have time to do this down the line, closer to the election potentially, and then, you know, they get more political wind at their backs, even if it doesn't work in the Senate. But they have to make a calculation of being able to get some Republicans on board.

And there are Republicans out there who are willing to cross Trump when it comes to coordination with Russia. You saw -- I know this is not the same wheelhouse, but yesterday that vote on their scaling down Russian sanctions for Oleg Deripaska, over 130 House Republicans saying, we're not cool with this, that means there is a gut-stop-gap for a lot of the GOP that we don't actually -- we can't be so OK with everything you do --

KING: Right. And to -- so to that --

DEMIRJIAN: Involving Russia, but it's possible.

KING: So to that point, is this a, again, maybe an understandable perspective from a Democrat but, a, not going to happen? This is Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut saying, listen, if Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP. Mueller shouldn't end his inquiry, but it's about time for him to show Congress' cards before it's too late for us to act.

I don't know what the too late part is, but that -- like Bob Mueller, again, if you know anything about Bob Mueller, he's an institutional guy. He wants to be thorough. He wants his legacy of this investigation to survive. Is he going to come up halfway through and say, oh, let me share this?

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, SIRIUS XM: No, but what's going to be interesting is on February 7th when --


KNOX: Michael Cohen is asked about this in a public forum, does he say, no, it didn't happen, or does he say, I can't talk about that because Bob Mueller has told me not to, right?

WALTER: I think that's --

KNOX: That's going to be fairly spectacular.

KING: Right, I'm going to --


KING: I'm -- I suspect the chairman will reach out to the special counsel's office first --

KNOX: For sure.

PACE: Right.

KING: And say, could you please send me a letter of where I should not go so that I can calm everybody down and blame you.


DEMIRJIAN: Yes, that's why the --


KNOX: Hold on, calming everybody down on -- calming everybody down on any Judiciary Committee --

WALTER: That's right, it will be asked.

KING: Yes, sorry.

KNOX: Is unlikely. Those committees bring in some of the hardest- charging partisans of either party. So the idea that -- no offense to Chairman Nadler -- the idea that he can actually herd cats or put frogs in a wheelbarrow, whatever the image you want is, the idea that he can keep them all quiet on that committee on that issue --

PACE: And the idea (INAUDIBLE) --

DEMIRJIAN: Well, wait a second. First of all, it's not his committee. It's not his committee. It's OGR. It's Cummings' committee.

KNOX: Oh, you're right. I'm sorry. Yes.

DEMIRJIAN: So they have even less of the resources there on that one to do this specific thing. But I honestly think that the more critical interviews are going to be at the House Intel Committee and the Senate Intel Committee want him to come in around the same time behind closed doors.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: You can talk about a lot more behind closed doors, especially when those are panels already coordinating and making sure they stay out of Mueller's lane but talking about what is in Mueller's lane than in open source.

KING: If nothing else --

WALTER: And who else they can bring who was mentioned in this report.

KING: Right. That's the -- that's the -- that's the key.

WALTER: Which is the Trump children and others that can come in front of those committees, and maybe not behind closed doors.

KING: Right. Michael Cohen is a great starting point. But because of his own credibility issues, you need other building blocks to corroborate whatever the issue.

WALTER: Right.

KING: We'll keep on this story.

Up next for us, day 28. Are prospects of ending the shutdown getting even worse?

And as we go to break, remember, there are human beings involved here. This reminder from a TSA worker who's not getting a paycheck. This fight, about a lot more than building or not building a border wall.


ALLEX HUTCHINS, TSA SCREENER WORKING WITHOUT PAY: You've got to decide, do you buy something to eat or do you put gas in your vehicle? The airport is doing a lot of things to try to help us out, such as providing food and stuff like that. But personnel don't -- if you don't have gas to come to work, you just can't come to work.



[12:28:58] KING: Sharp, new sparring today between President Trump and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, their personal feud growing deeper as the partial government shutdown hits day 28. There are no negotiations scheduled and no visible hope of resolving this impasse before it hits the month mark in a couple of days or before those impacted federal workers face a second payless payday a week from now.

The president's border wall is the big divide, but add now to that difficult policy fight the deepening bad blood between the president and the speaker. Remember she put the president on notice, he's not welcome to deliver his State of the Union Address until the government is reopened. He responded by blocking the Air Force from taking the speaker and other Democrats to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

And today a fresh wrinkle, Pelosi says those Democrats were now prepared to fly on commercial airlines, but that the State Department security team warned it's not safe to do that now that the president put plans out for members of Congress to visit a war zone.



[12:30:01] REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: We weren't going to go because we had a report from Afghanistan that the president, outing our trip, had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous, because it's just a signal to the bad actors that we're coming -- never, we never advance -- we never give advance notice of going into a battle area. You just never do. Perhaps the President's inexperience --