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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Jeff Bezos Accuses National Enquirer of Extortion and Blackmail; House Democrats Begin Push to Get President's Tax Returns. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 7, 2019 - 20:00   ET

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


[20:00:09] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

We are following a bizarre, ugly, and potentially very big story. Amazon founder and "Washington Post" owner Jeff Bezos accusing David Pecker, owner of the "National Enquirer" and ally of the president's, of extortion and blackmail, and paying for an investigation that the "National Enquirer" certainly appears to be concerned about.

Pecker, you'll recall helped candidate Trump hush up his alleged affair with "Playboy" model Karen McDougal. The question is, what is he up to now?

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins us now with that.

So, talk about the allegations that Jeff Bezos is making here.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, Anderson, it's extraordinary to see this, Jeff Bezos publishing e-mails and writing how the "National Enquirer", he says, were trying to extort him and blackmail him over a "Washington Post" story that was published concerning the "National Enquirer" and some of their relationship and some of the reason perhaps why they were publishing some of this information and how they were using some of it politically.

So, "The National Enquirer" was trying in essence to perhaps maybe kill the story, or they wanted to use a statement from "The National Enquirer". So Jeff Bezos says essentially "The National Enquirer" was trying to blackmail him. He has e-mails.

One of the e-mails that came from "The National Enquirer", it said, quote, "the Washington post" poised to published unsubstantiated rumors of the "National Enquirer's" initial report, I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our news gathering. In addition to the below-the-vest selfie, otherwise colloquially known as -- and then they write the "Enquirer" obtained a further nine images.

Of course, this all comes after the "National Enquirer" had written a story about an affair that Jeff Bezos was having. And certainly, it did not end because "The Washington Post" started pursuing stories about the "National Enquirer", and it seems by these e-mails that the National Enquirer was trying to get the story killed.

COOPER: Yes. They're basically saying in these e-mail, describing in great detail the photographs that they have, which, you know, might be embarrassing for Jeff Bezos, but -- I mean, it's pretty remarkable the strategy he has taken. He's got a lot of means. He's got Gavin de Becker, ho is a top security expert, who is heading up his investigation.

And by making these e-mails public, he is basically throwing down the gauntlet, saying, I'm not going to be blackmailed. I'm not going to be extorted here.

PROKUPECZ: That's exactly what he is doing. He is obviously trying to get ahead of it. And he knows, and everyone knows what's the "National Enquirer" has done in previous cases, and he himself here trying to get ahead of it.

And you're right. He did hire an investigator, but he says that there are several investigations into this. The big question also, Anderson, has been how did the "National Enquirer" get ahold of this information? The texts, the other information that they initially had reported on in their initial story concerning the affair between Jeff Bezos and this woman. That has always been a question.

And now, they have all these other photos that were seemed to have come from a cell phone. They were text messages and photos that were shared between Jeff Bezos and this woman. And now they have all of this information. And the big question, what Bezos is trying to find out, who was behind this? How did the National Enquirer get ahold of this.

COOPER: And obviously, David Pecker and President Trump have a long- standing relationship as well.

PROKUPECZ: Yes, a very long-standing relationship. And as you said, he was involved in the capture and kill the "National Enquirer" involving Karen McDougal. They've known each other for many, many years.

However, recently from what I've been told their relationship has kind of soured since the whole SDNY, since David Pecker and AMI started cooperating in the SDNY investigation of those hush payments to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, and that their relationship has somewhat soured. Don't know if that is still the case today.

But that relationship between the president and David Pecker certainly becomes more interesting given the relationship between the president and Jeff Bezos and "The Washington Post" and his attacks on "The Washington Post". There could be motive here, right? And that's going to be something that I think Bezos investigators are trying to get to the bottom of.

COOPER: Yes, it's incredible. Shimon Prokupecz.

We're going have more on the story as it continues to unfold throughout the hour. Right now, though, tonight's other developing story, the president's behavior in the face of investigations that just keep hitting closer to home. If you're looking for evidence that House Democrats are getting under President Trump's skin with this growing wave you don't have to go far. The president is all but shouting it from the rooftops.

The president got on Twitter this morning in part to rail against the Russia investigation, but also to rage about a White House personnel matter.

The Dems and their committees are going nuts, the president tweeted. Republicans never did this to President Obama. There would be no time left to run the government. I hear other committee heads will do the same, even stealing people who work at White House, a continuation of witch hunt.

[20:05:07] Now, even stealing people who work at the White House, Keeping him honest, when reporters asked what that meant, they were told to ask Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. So we asked the committee. An aide telling us they have hired individuals with experience on the National Security Council staff, but no recent hire came directly from the White House.

So, however, you define hiring from or stealing from the White House, it's pretty clear the president is now even sweating the smallest stuff in the face of a growing effort that the House Democrats now say will reach into areas the president said were once off-limits. He said that in an interview with "The New York Times."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SCHMIDT: Mueller was looking at your finances, your family's finances unrelated to Russia? Is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual target is?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say yes. I would say yes.

By the way, I would say I don't -- it's possible this condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units and somebody from Russia bias condo, who knows? I don't make money from Russia.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COOPER: So, that was two summers ago.

And yes, we learned since then the president had been less than forthcoming about the pursuit of business in Russia and other things as well, which may be White House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff yesterday said his committee now plans to investigate whether and how the president's business dealings affect his decision making, whether foreign actors now have influence over him because of it. His committee is one of many digging into the Trump International Hotel in Washington, payments to Michael Cohen, and on the far side of the reddest of red lines, the president's tax returns.

That's on top of federal and state investigations into the campaign transition, inaugural committee, the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the civil suit over his hotels, especially in Washington. It's no wonder the president's a little touchy on this lately. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.

(APPLAUSE)

If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That's the president Tuesday night saying essentially drop the investigations or the economy gets it. Today, he tweeted: So, now, Congressman Adam Schiff announces after having found zero Russian collusion that he is going to investigate every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so. Never happened before. Unlimited presidential harassment. Also, presidential harassment, it should never be allowed to happen again.

Late today, the target of his ire, Congressman Schiff answered back in a podcast posted on the website "America Blog".

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The president has had two years of a Congress that would simply do no oversight whatsoever. And so the idea of meaningful oversight, the idea of Congress is a coequal branch clearly terrifies the president.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COOPER: Whether terrifies is the right word or enrages or merely irritates, it's all on display at Twitter at press availabilities and cabinet meetings played out all day. Tomorrow between the president's acting attorney general and the House Judiciary Committee ended late today. But there is no sign the president's larger war on his many investigators is going to come to a close now or any time soon.

Let's dig deeper now into the question of red lines, congressional oversight and the Mueller probe. A new CNN poll shows an overwhelming majority, nearly 90 percent say it should be made public.

Joining us now is Senate Judiciary Committee member, Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

Senator, do you believe the president is more concerned about congressional investigations that are going on now and will be going on or the Mueller probe?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMTITEE: I think he seems to be equally concerned. He certainly has called both a witch hunt, and he has denounced both. But both are absolutely necessary, and particularly the claim about

harassment. Congress is simply doing its job. In fact, it has an institutional and constitutional role to play here, and the president has lived in a very charmed cocoon because all three branches of the government have been under Republican control.

COOPER: Is there a risk, though, in Democrats kind of overplaying their hand, launching endless investigations that after a while just may seem to some people just partisan -- part of a partisan effort to get the president?

BLUMENTHAL: There would be a risk in abuse or endless investigations, but that is hardly what's contemplated here. In fact, just today, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee declined at least for now to issue a subpoena to the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, because he is going to appear after giving him questions weeks in advance.

So I think that the conduct here has been eminently reasonable and what we want in transparency on the Mueller report also is eminently reasonable.

[20:10:09] The American people paid for this investigation and for the report. They deserve to know what's in it.

The legislation that I've introduced with Senator Grassley is bipartisan. I've been very encouraged by the growing receptivity of my Republican colleagues, perhaps because they are sensing what that CNN poll so dramatically reveals. The American people want the report to be released.

And as one of my former colleagues, one of my predecessors, Senator Weicker wrote at the very beginning of the Watergate investigation, the gut question for the committee and the country is, how much truth do we want?

COOPER: I think the chairman of the house ways and means has made it clear he is going to be requesting the president's tax returns. That is obviously something the president does not want people to see. Does the president have any kind of a recourse to prevent that?

BLUMENTHAL: No doubt he'll resist the request or even the subpoena for that kind of material, but he has no real defense or recourse under the law because, clearly, the chairman of the committee has the power to obtain it from the Internal Revenue Service, despite his resisting it. And in fact, he is the first president never to provide those tax returns in the past, and we've offered legislation to specifically require that he make it known.

COOPER: Is there one of these Democratic investigations, congressional investigations that you think the president should be most worried about or that most interests you?

BLUMENTHAL: They are all of interest to the American people. And in addition to the special counsel investigation, the congressional oversight investigations are really critically important to Congress doing its job. For him to resist would be as one constitutional scholar has said anti-constitutional, because the Congress, remember, is a source for oversight.

And until now, I'll be very blunt, the real heroes of oversight have been the free press, which has uncovered so many facts and important insights into this administration, and the independent judiciary. But Congress now is going to be doing its job, and that prospect I think not only enrages and annoys the president, but also maybe terrifies him a little bit.

COOPER: I also want to bring in Jeff Toobin, CNN's chief legal analyst. Also former Nixon White House counsel and I'm told Warren Harding advocate, John Dean.

Jeff, I know you've got some questions for Senator Blumenthal as well.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what about the issue of executive privilege? Because this is -- this seems like the fight about Whittaker is really coming down to that. How much do you think the -- can Congress, the House of Representatives in this case should be allowed to inquire into the conversations between the acting attorney general and the president of the United States?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, since the acting attorney general has talked about the timing of the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, the special counsel's ongoing inquiry, I think Congress can ask how he knows what that time willing be. And in fact, Whitaker's waved executive privilege on that point.

But I think generally, executive privilege has been overused, excessively abused by witnesses. It has been falsely invoked by past witnesses before the Intelligence Committee of the Senate and our committee, the Judiciary Committee.

TOOBIN: For example, the question, did the president ever discuss the Mueller investigation with you as acting attorney general or previously in his other role at the Justice Department. You think that question is fair game?

BLUMENTHAL: That is absolutely fair game, and the real question is what is he hiding? What is Whitaker hiding? What is he seeking to conceal? Why is he invoking this executive privilege, and what is the basis for the privilege? I think none.

COOPER: John Dean, the Mueller probe may not have anything more. It may not have anything that shows the president did anything wrong. What do you make of these numerous Democratic congressional investigations? Which one are you looking at, most interested?

JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: I'm watching the Adam Schiff and his intelligence committee most intently right now. He seems to have set a very broad mandate for himself as to what he is going to look into, everything from the president's finances to whether he has some ties to Russia that haven't been disclosed, including his taxes and what they might show.

I'd add that the only person that can really invoke executive privilege in any of these committees is the president himself. [20:15:04] The witness cannot. He could theoretically defer and say

the president may want to invoke privilege on this, and I'm going to --

COOPER: Although we've seen a ton of witnesses over the last two years invoking a kind of imaginary --

DEAN: With no authority whatsoever. It is pure baloney they're engaged, and the Republicans refuse to press them on it and let them get away with it.

TOOBIN: That's a very important point, particularly Jeff Session when he was attorney general. He would say in testimony, and other witnesses would say I'd just prefer not to answer that.

Like what is that? But when you have a sympathetic chair and no pushback on that, they've gotten away with that. Now, we'll see how that changes, if it changes.

BLUMENTHAL: Jeff is right that we pressed as the minority on these committees, on the Judiciary Committee, for example, when Jeff Sessions or other witnesses have appeared. We have pressed this issue, to no avail, because the chairman in effect has gaveled us down.

And it's extremely important because he's invoked it, for example, on financial dealings. He has drawn a red line. There is no reason for that red line other than his trying to hide meddling by the Russians, which somehow benefits him, or money laundering by Deutsche Bank, which they have already admitted, not involving Trump, but they've admitted to doing it. And I think there are much broader, deeper questions here.

COOPER: So, I mean, with John Dean here, Senator Blumenthal, do you see parallels with Watergate?

BLUMENTHAL: There are parallels that we could discuss for the next couple of hours in my view, but one of them involves that question that Lowell Weicker asked. How much truth does the country want?

Because I think there are clearly facts and evidence that the special counsel has that the American people want. That's the reason that I've introduced this bill with Senator Grassley, and it should have bipartisan support because the question for the country and for William Barr, the attorney general is will he do the president's bidding, or will he put the American people first.

The American people paid for that report. They deserve to see everything in it.

COOPER: John Dean, do you see --

DEAN: This is a little upside down right now as opposed to Watergate where you didn't really get grand juries other than those looking at the Watergate burglars into the cover-up until after the Senate had already started a very detailed select committee investigation of Watergate where many witnesses and virtually all of the key players would appear sooner or later. When the special prosecutor came along, he tried to block actually a number of witnesses, including yours truly. Thought that would disrupt the grand jury and the prepress publicity that could affect trials ultimately, but it was not successful.

And I think it educated the American people having the witnesses out explaining what was going on, and that's what hopefully it's going to happen now.

COOPER: Jeff, do you think people are aware of what a change this may mean for the president, just over the next two years?

TOOBIN: Well, they're starting to become aware. I mean, just think about, you know, how many investigations have already started. You know, I think the public is most aware of things they can actually see on television or on the Internet, and there have not been many major televised hearings. However, tomorrow morning, Attorney General Whitaker will testify and that will be public. Michael Cohen will testify, although behind closed doors at least initially. But I think --

NIXON: Lanny said tonight he is going to do a public testimony too.

TOOBIN: Also on February 28th?

NIXON: No, before.

TOOBIN: Before.

NIXON: Go figure.

TOOBIN: More to know.

COOPER: Senator Blumenthal, thank you, John Dean.

Jeff Toobin is going to stick around. I want to get Jeff's take in a moment. When we return, Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world, accusing the man who has handled some of the president's dirtiest laundry in the past, accusing him of trying to blackmail Jeff Bezos. That's coming up.

And next, Maggie Haberman and David Gergen on how the president may react to all these investigations as they hit closer to home.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:23:34] COOPER: We're talking about President Trump lashing out in a variety of venues, of course on Twitter. The growing number of investigations of him, his finances, his businesses and more.

Right now, I want to dig further into his state of mind and what his next move may be. Joining us, two CNN political analyst, "New York Times" White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, and veteran senior presidential adviser David Gergen. So, Maggie, you just interviewed the president last week. Do you

believe he is fuming about this congressional oversight writ large or do you think there are specific areas he is concerned about?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I don't know that he is actually fuming. I think there is a steady frustration with all of these investigations, and I think that it is everything mixed together. I think what you were seeing him try to do both in the State of the Union and with the tweets this morning, and I think the tweets were fumy.

But he is trying to basically say all investigations are the same. He is not separating them out. Everything is a partisan effort against me.

Mueller is partisan, even though Mueller is a Republican who was appointed by a Republican. You know, SNDY, that's all partisan because that's part of the deep state. This is all part of a broader delegitimizing effort by the president.

He is, however, frustrated. Anything that comes near his personal finances is something that worries him and alarms him, and we have heard this from people close to him for a long time. So, it's not surprising that you're seeing the reaction we are.

COOPER: David, I mean, certainly understandable from the president's perspective and the perspective of his supporters that if the Mueller investigation is winding down, if there is no, you know, evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russia as so many people earlier and certainly Democrats were kind of expecting or looking for -- I mean, it's easy to see why the president would view this as suspicious that, all of the sudden, if the Mueller investigation is winding down, all of the sudden the Democrats who are now in power are ramping up all these new investigations.

[20:25:21] DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, sure. But these are the fruits of the midterms. And for Trump, they're very bitter fruits.

But he knew this was coming. The whole world has known this was coming, that for two years, the Congress has not exercised serious oversight of the kind we normally expect because it's been largely in the hands of his friends and his allies and the Republican Party have controlled both chambers. And with that passage -- just as the vote enabled Donald Trump to go to the edges of presidential authority, this midterm election vote gave the Democrats a chance to exercise a much more invasive form of scrutiny.

I think the other point that should be made is this is hardly unprecedented for a president to be upset and for an administration to feel invaded. Just think about what the Obama administration did face. You remember, they had Benghazi. Has everybody forgotten Benghazi or the IRS or Fast and Furious or Solyndra? Those all became hand grenades thrown into the midst of the Obama administration.

This is politics. This is what happens in our politics today. COOPER: Yes. And certainly, Maggie, the president doesn't seem to

see that it way because he is saying this is all unprecedented, that this wasn't done to President Obama. What kind of tools, which mechanisms, Maggie, of the presidency do you expect the president to try to deploy to at least slow down the House committees?

HABERMAN: I think a couple of things, and just one thing to your point about how his argument has been that Obama didn't face this. As David said, Obama faced a different variety. It's true, Obama didn't face an investigation into his private business ties because he didn't have a big private company and was not coming in as an independently wealthy man. So it's just a completely different circumstance, with business and business entanglements that had been going on in Russia or involving Russia potentially during the campaign. So, it's a little different.

In terms of what I think the White House might deploy, they have spent a lot of time beefing up the White House's counsel's office. I think they are actually looking at trying to be prepared for what could come, including having a lawyer serve as a spokesman. I think you're going to see some efforts to try to slow down and grind the gears on releasing tax returns, which legally, you know, the Congress has a right to request. And I think you're going see efforts to throw sand in the gears by any means necessary to just run out the clock as long as possible.

I don't know how long that will last. I don't know if there will be some kind of a court effort to get them, but I don't think that -- I think that the Trump administration has made pretty clear that there are going to be some things they comply with and some things they just won't. And I think obviously the tax returns are going to fall in the latter category.

COOPER: David, do you think the House Democrats are going to end up getting the president's tax returns?

GERGEN: I don't know. I don't -- this has never been challenged before. We've never faced this situation before, because all the previous presidents in modern times have released their tax returns. That's one reason Barack Obama did not have an investigation of his tax returns, because he made them all public.

And what's happened here on the president's tax return, because he refused to let them go, there is a deep suspicion, especially among Democrats and independents that there is something in that that he's holding back for a good reason, that it would be damaging for him. And that's one of the reasons people need to know and have a right to know.

But I would assume we'll find out in court. I think Maggie is absolutely right. They'll try to extend this out as far as they can, get past the Mueller report and then try to close down everything. But that's why it's been so important for the president to get a man he can trust. And William Barr as attorney general, he thinks he'll fight for him. COOPER: Maggie, at some point if these investigations go on long

enough heading into 2020, there is a distinct possibility they end up energizing the president's base.

HABERMAN: No question, no question.

COOPER: Or to imagine him railing against the Democrat-controlled -- it's not hard to imagine railing against the Democrat-controlled House and campaign rallies.

HABERMAN: The president was very explicit with people around him heading into the midterms and soon after that he actually thought that a Democratic-controlled House would be politically good for him. He likes the idea of divided government. To be clear, he did not have a good relationship with Paul Ryan, so it's not a huge surprise.

But this is of course the reality of a divided government, is it gets -- yes, it gives you an opponent. I agree with you, I think it will energize his base. The problem is the president's base has contracted a bit. That might change when you have a binary and it's him versus another candidate.

But his base alone is not enough to re-elect him. And after two years, it's really essentially impossible for him to do some kind of a pivot to the middle in the way that we saw Bill Clinton do at a similar point in his first term. So I think the cake is pretty big for the president. He is doing what he has to do to get as many people out as he can.

One thing I do think is a concern. Less so on the congressional investigations, in the Southern District New York investigations going on that began with Michael Cohen and that is now touching on the President's business, I think that that will go on for quite some time.

Mueller I think is a different category because I think it gets to a point where it could seem like it is getting a little too close into the reelection territory. And I think that is something you will hear the President and the White House say repeatedly.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Maggie Haberman, appreciate it. David Gergen as well.

Up next, we're going to have more of our breaking news from the top of the hour. Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, the owner of "The Washington Post" with an extraordinary online post tonight, accusing the "National Enquirer" and his publisher seems like extortion and blackmail after revealed text messages revealing an affair he was having. Were the tabloids, alleged threats all to help the President? Questions on that ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: More now on our breaking news at the top of the hour. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owner telephone "Washington Post" is accusing the "National Enquirer" and publisher of extortion and blackmail. He is making his case online in stunning personal post on medium titled, "No Thank You, Mr. Pecker." Mr. Pecker -- David Pecker is a one-time confidante of President Trump as we mentioned earlier. He helped candidate Trump hush up his alleged affair with a "playboy" model. Who knows what else?

Keep in mind Pecker is supposed to be cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating the so-called catch and kill payments that the Enquirer made. The stunning claim tonight made by Bezos raises questions about that expected cooperation. Here are the details on how we got to this point.

Now last month the "National Enquirer" made Bezos' affair with a woman a front-page story. That came hours after Bezos posted a statement on Twitter from he and his wife of 25 years announcing their plans to divorce. After the tabloid story, Bezos launched his own investigation to find out who leaked photos of him with his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, a former TV news anchor.

[20:35:07] And tonight he is going after the Enquirer and its parent company AMI because he says they resorted to blackmail to stop his own investigation. Bezos writes online, "I was made an offer I couldn't refuse, or at least that's what the top people at the 'National Enquirer' thought. I'm glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than to capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I decided to publish exactly what they sent me despite the personal costs and embarrassment they threatened."

So what did the folks of the Enquirer allegedly offer him? Bezos shares several e-mails, one of them reportedly from AMI's chief content officer to the attorney for Bezos' investigator. Here is the key part. "With 'The Washington Post' poised to publish unsubstantiated rumor, the 'National Enquirer's initial report, I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our news gathering. In addition to below the belt selfie, otherwise colloquially known as a "-- I don't know if I should say that as a blank pick, the Enquirer obtained a further nine images. And the e- mail goes on to share details of those racy photos I guess you would say, including some selfies. We'll leave it at that. They have -- the claim of blackmail and extortion is based on that.

Now joining me for more on that is CNN Senior Media Correspondent Brian Stelter. Also back with us is Jeffrey Toobin and joining us is CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

Jeff, I mean, Bezos is calling this blackmail and extortion. They essentially sent him a letter sent his investigator's attorneys letter saying we -- these are the photos we have. It's clearly -- it's going to be embarrassing. We won't publish them if you make a statement saying that there's nothing to do between the Enquirer and Saudi Arabia and you stop this investigation.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right. It's an unusual spin on a familiar part of what the "National Enquirer" does. Usually it's about what's in the "National Enquirer." Here it's about what's in "The Washington Post." Is that there was a "Washington Post" investigation going on, and the Enquirer, the letter says you write the following in "The Washington Post" or the implicit threat is we publish these letters. These photographs, not letters.

COOPER: Dictating to "The Washington Post" what they should say.

TOOBIN: Which Bezos says would have been false anyway, because he feels apparently that there was political motivation for what the Enquirer was doing. Your question is it blackmail? Is it a crime? Is it extortion? My answer is I don't know. I think it is worthy of investigation. It's an unusual situation because even though it does have a threat involved, it is part of the news gathering process broadly defined, even though it's deeply sleazy. And I could see prosecutors hesitating to sort of get in the middle of this. It's disgraceful journalism. It's disgraceful behavior. Whether it's an actual crime, I am frankly not prepared to say at this point.

COOPER: What -- what are the -- I mean, what is the difference between what they're doing and what you would think of as extortion or blackmail?

TOOBIN: Well --

COOPER: If they're saying you published something in your paper, I mean, it's like a kidnapper saying you publish this or I'm going release these photos.

TOOBIN: Right. But they would argue is we're just trying to get "The Washington Post" to report accurately, and we're using the leverage we have.

Now, you know, it's certainly a deeply shabby way to do that, but that's a little different at last from me saying to you give me a million dollars or I'll kill you. That's sort of the classic extortion scenario. The, you know, print this or we print these photographs, I just don't know. It might be, but I'm not prepared to say, you know, off the top of my head that this is definitely a crime.

COOPER: Gloria, I mean, Bezos of course owns the "Washington Post." He doesn't control its editorial direction. The threat appears to be tied to the paper's coverage, specifically about Saudi Arabia and the "National Enquirer."

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. I mean, Jeff Bezos dropped a bunch of breadcrumbs here. And when you read it and reread it, it becomes pretty clear. Number one, he points, you know, out Pecker's past cooperation with Donald Trump, but number two, he talks about AMI and Saudi Arabia, and then number three, he conflates them both.

At one point he says, and he points out in a piece from "The New York Times," he says after Mr. Trump became President, he rewarded Mr. Pecker's loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financial acquisitions. So he was looking for money.

[20:40:03] And, you know, "The Post" has been relentless in its coverage of Khashoggi. And so the questions that are out there -- and he leaves these crumbs. The questions that are out there are, you know, are Pecker's ties to the White House related to the Saudis, right? And did the White House help Pecker in any way with the Saudis? And he keeps dropping this, you know, dropping this out there, kind of letting it hang out there, and you have to raise these questions.

COOPER: Brian, I mean CNN's reached out to AMI, David Pecker. Have you heard anything?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I've been calling, and frankly, the calls are going straight to voice mail, Anderson. AMI, "National Enquirer," Pecker, his people, have not responded in any way to Bezos' allegations yet.

But I think many people who have been following this entire story, following this scandal about Bezos and the alleged affair he had, they're cheering for Bezos right now. They're saying thank you for standing up to a possible blackmail attempt. Thanks for publishing the details so people can see how this sometimes works. Because after all, this is not the first time AMI and the "National Enquirer" have been accused of blackmail. That this even came up in the early months of the Trump administration between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski at MSNBC said that there was an attempt to use the Inquirer to punish them.

Basically the suggestion was that they were supposed to call Trump and apologize for being tough on him and go easy on him on TV or else the "National Enquirer" would publish nasty things about their lives.

So there's a history of this here. And whether these details add up to a crime or not, there is clearly an unethical action happening. And speaking of crimes and legality, we should keep in mind, AMI, Pecker, Dylan Howard, they have an immunity deal related to Michael Cohen that immunity deal would be off if there are other crimes that could be prosecuted. So that may be why they haven't commented yet.

COOPER: Well, let me ask you about that, Jeff. I mean, in that deal they basically cop to a statement of facts about Karen McDougal and how that all played out. Is that -- is there cooperation only limited to the Karen McDougal case and Michael Cohen?

TOOBIN: No, not at all. They would not -- when you cooperate with the southern district of New York, they have a blanket rule that you cooperate about everything. You answer any question they have.

Now they admit to their involvement in the Karen McDougal story, which remember, Michael Cohen pled guilty to a crime in connection. He said I was helping an unlawful campaign contribution. As a result of that agreement that Brian referred to, AMI, David Pecker, Dylan Howard would not be prosecuted. But the condition of that agreement is always you don't commit any other crimes or the deal is off. So what they have to be concerned about is the prosecutor saying well, you've now committed blackmail. You've now committed extortion. We're going tear up that agreement and prosecute you the same way we prosecuted Michael Cohen for an illegal campaign contribution. I don't know if they're going to do that, but it's possible. I'm sorry, Gloria. BORGER: Jeffrey, let me ask you this, which is if there is a criminal

investigation, wouldn't everything about Trump, his relationship to AMI and the Saudis, wouldn't that become discoverable?

TOOBIN: Well, sure. I mean, it would all be potentially relevant, assuming the charges are an unlawful campaign contribution, because the question would be why would they make an unlawful campaign contribution. What did Trump have to offer them? It's -- the relationship between -- I mean the irony here is, you know, I wrote a profile of Pecker in " New Yorker" about two years ago, and he couldn't have been more open about the Karen McDougal situation. He said, yeah, we paid her because we wanted to support President Trump. He's a friend of the magazine. Now, he has been less open in recent months because I think he now realizes the potential for an unlawful campaign contribution situation. Now with this, he really could be exposed again.

COOPER: Also why is he going after Jeff Bezos and allegations of this affair as a favor to Donald Trump because of "The Washington Post" reporting. Jeff, thank you. Brian Stelter, thanks. Gloria Borger as well.

Coming up, will the President ever release his tax returns? The question is really has been asked for years and House Democrats are making a move that could finally lead to a showdown, the latest on that, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:48:16] COOPER: As we mentioned the beginning of the program, one of the many aspects of the President's life and business that is under scrutiny is his refusal to release his tax returns going against decades of precedent. Today House Democrats started the first hearings that could lead to a showdown over the President's taxes. Some of the witnesses at that hearing included tax and ethics experts, diverts Congress to demand them. The main question being whether the President and his business are benefits from public office?

Joining me now is Pulitzer Prize Winning Investigative Reporter and Tax and Accounting Columnist David Cay Johnston, author of the making of Donald Trump.

Thank you so much for being with us. David, you have investigated, you've written extensively about President Trump and his business dealings. Why do you think he is fighting so hard to keep his returns private?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Because they're going to show that Donald is a tax cheat. In 1984, Donald had two trials. They were civil trials, but that I were tax fraud trials. He lost them both. His own witness, Jack Mitnick, who was his long-time tax lawyer and accountant testified under oath that's my signature on the tax return, but I didn't prepare that tax return. That's pretty good evidence of fraud. And they will also show if they dig behind the tax returns into what's called tax information how much money has flowed to Donald from Russians, from Saudi Arabia, from elsewhere that may be influencing his judgments as President of the United States and whether he is a loyal American or not.

COOPER: It's interesting, because obviously we know now because of a lot of organizations reporting about the attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and the President's interest in that. All along the President and his kids have said there was no business with Russia. I think at one point I think it was Don Jr. said or maybe Eric Trump said, you know, we get a lot of money from Russians. I think they were talking about Russian who are buying apartments or buying I think there was a fancy property in Florida that one Russian oligarch bought from Trump.

[20:50:13] We don't really know, though, I mean, there's a lot of arms to his business that the public just doesn't really know anything about.

JOHNSTON: Exactly right. And Donald's standard business deal doesn't have any money in it. Donald, remember, have one dollar invested in Atlantic City. It was all other people's money and the Russian mansion deal is particularly important. Donald was desperately in need for cash by his own filings in a court case and he got more than double the value of a house from one of the Russian oligarchs. And the cover story that was taken up by a lot of gullible reporters, Anderson, was well the man was trying to hide money from his wife he was divorcing. If you want to hide money from your spouse you don't pay two or three times the value of a property. You might as well put a match to it.

COOPER: You've called for a thorough professional congressional investigation, why would a congressional investigation be different than any scrutiny he has been under by the state of New York?

JOHNSTON: Well, the state of New York certainly has the capacity and I was the one who got Governor Cuomo to move on this issue of getting a criminal investigation going by the state. The state attorney general only has civil authority unless the governor gives criminal authority. But we need to have an independent look at Donald's finances. The internal revenue service has been stripped down to nothing. In fact, today I have a family member who was told to wait 12 weeks to get their question answered about their simple short tax return. We need to have congressional investigators who work for the joint committee on taxation which is done fabulous work for 80 years and they'll know how to look at the returns and find out what needs to be put in the public record.

COOPER: I mean, also the -- we know prosecutors are -- according to latest reporting, wanting to talk to Trump organization executives?

JOHNSTON: Well, and Allen Weisselberg, who is been the long time CFO of the Trump organization is at least a partially cooperating witness. Michael Cohen has given them information and Donald has a long history of, you know, cheating, lying under oath, presenting false documents, not just in the tax case but many others. There's a wonderful story of how the city of New York went after him when he tried to cheat the city out of about $2.5 million a year and the auditors wouldn't give up and had one crazy story after another trying to hide the books and records. COOPER: David Cay Johnston, I appreciate you coming in. Thank you so

much.

JOHNSTON: Thank you.

COOPER: I want to check in with Chris and see what he's working on for Cuomo Prime Time. Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, this news about Paul Manafort and his meeting with a Russian Operative being at the heart, those are the words of the special counsel. Why? What was he lying about? Why would he be lying? What does it mean to overall probe?

We have Congressman Matt Gaetz on tonight from Florida. He's a staunch defender of the President and he also got caught up in a really ugly scene at the house judiciary meeting about guns the other day with one of the parents from the Parkland massacre. So we'll going to talk to him about those things. Very controversial.

We'll also take on, Anderson, what we see coming next and why the President has good reason for worry.

COOPER: All right, Chris. 7 minutes from now. A lot of for, thanks very much. See you in a few minutes.

Coming up, the President asks for feedback on his state of the Union Address, wants to know was it historic, great, or just good? The Ridiculist is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:57:38] COOPER: Time now for the Ridiculist. I think we can all agree that one trait of an effective and self-aware leader is to want honest feedback. So what a sign it was that the Trump campaign sent an e-mail to their supporters after the state of the State of Union speech asking for just that.

I'm sure the e-mail starts off insulting crime chuck Democrats and labels the President's speech historic twice but then it asks the President's followers to take the "Official State of the Union Approval Poll" and it's absolutely official because as you can see right there it says, official. Eat your heart out gallop. So from this highly official undeniably scientific poll sent by team Trump to Trump supporters, I now present the first question. "How would you rate President Trump's State of the Union Address, historic, great, good, or other?

Historic, great, good seems like a missed opportunity for an all of the above option but I'm no pollster. Gee, I wonder what's going to happen to this data from the super scientific survey. Now, it's true that some people did think State of the Union was historic or great and good. In fact, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS found that 76% of viewers had either a very positive or some what positive reaction. Of course, there's also some people who thought it was other. That's not the point. The point is, what's the purpose of gathering this kind of information in this way. Who would want the results of a skewed survey since the president's supporters would allude (ph) question where the answer choices are all synonyms for you sir are awesome.

Coincidently, the President tweeted this a short time ago. "So nice how well my State of the Union speech was received. Thank you to all."

Now there were other chances for Trump supporters to make their feelings known in the survey. Here are few other questions, "Do you believe President Trump delivered a visionary speech of always choosing American greatness? And do you believe Democrats only say they don't want a wall to harass our great President?" See these are perfect examples of why it's very important how poll questions are worried and as we know Kellyanne Conway is very concerned about this kind of thing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kellyanne, there's a new poll out showing that 71 percent of American --

KELLYANNE CONWAY, DONALD TRUMP AIDE: Do you have the poll? Do you have a poll question?

PHILLIP: So, it's on CBS.

CONWAY: Yes, right, but I just want to see the question.

PHILLIP: The question was, is the wall worth the government shutdown?

CONWAY: And so why would that be the question?

PHILLIP: I'm wondering what is the President --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: With that we invite all of you to take the official ridiculous approval poll was the President survey embarrassing, utterly pointless, a shameless exercise in narcissism and other, and that all of the above is what we call very official and a very good question on the ridiculist.

And that's it for us tonight. The news continues, I want to hand it over to Chris Cuomo for Cuomo Prime Time. Chris?

CUOMO: Thank you, Anderson. I am Chris Cuomo and welcome to the Prime Time.

We have new information, the special counsel says that Trump's then campaign chair meeting the Russian operative --