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Did Trump Try to Intervene in Cohen Investigation?; Roger Stone Attacks Judge; Bernie Sanders Announces Presidential Bid. Aired 3- 3:30p ET

Aired February 19, 2019 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. You are watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

It is a busy, busy news day here. The breaking news is this, that the president possibly tried to rein in the investigation into his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump asked his asked his acting attorney general whether or not the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York could, in fact, unrecuse himself from the investigation into Michael Cohen.

And I just talked to one of the lead reporters who broke the story wide open for "The Times." And he talked to me about how this whole conversation between Trump and Matt Whitaker actually went down.


MARK MAZZETTI, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Not long after Whitaker was installed as the acting attorney general, Trump calls him and asks whether a new person could be put in charge of the Michael Cohen investigation that's been taking place up in New York.

He asked whether the U.S. attorney, who had to recuse himself out of a conflict of interest, could be put in charge. Trump thought that this is individual, Geoffrey Berman, might actually be more of an ally.

And, clearly, it indicates that the president saw this investigation up in New York as being problematic and potentially kind of spiraling out of control. So, that was the request he put in to Matt Whitaker.

BALDWIN: And Whitaker ultimately said what?

MAZZETTI: Whitaker was unable to do anything about it. It appears that he didn't take too many steps to try to follow through on the president's request, knowing full well that actually trying to get someone put back in charge, unrecused is something he was not -- didn't have the power to do in the Justice Department.

And, as we reported, Trump eventually sours on Whitaker. He's angry that Whitaker is not able to carry out some of the tasks that the president had hoped he might be able to do. So it was one kind of window into the president's attitude law enforcement, towards these investigations which, as we report, are kind of encircling him.


BALDWIN: Mark Mazzetti there with "The New York Times"?

And then moments ago, President Trump was just asked about this "Times" report as he was at the White House.


QUESTION: Mr. President, did you ask acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to change the leadership of the investigation into your former personal attorney Michael Cohen?



BALDWIN: All right, so, Laura, Laura Jarrett, I'm starting with you here, our CNN justice correspondent.

And let's just -- because context is important, right? So explain the context of what was going on between Trump and his acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, during the month of just this past December.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So the larger context and picture here, Brooke, is that the president is deep in the weeds when it comes to the Michael Cohen investigation, because, as Pamela Brown and I reported late last year, the president was frustrated by what he saw as prosecutors in Manhattan running amok.

And so we reported on at least two different calls that he made to Whitaker last year, essentially venting about prosecutors, asking why Whitaker couldn't do more to control them, suggesting that the campaign finance violations that Michael Cohen had pled guilty to that actually implicated the president essentially as an unindicted co- conspirator in those hush money payments to women before the election that we remember, essentially telling Whitaker, none of that is a crime, I don't understand why this is happening, sending him op-eds on the issue.

And so he's upset about it, he's venting about it to Whitaker, because he thinks Whitaker can actually do something about it, given that he's the acting attorney general.

And so "The New York Times"' reporting on this is part and parcel of the same issue there. He seems to be under the assumption that if he makes a switch to Berman, somehow that will help him out, because, otherwise, why would he care about Berman?

Now, we know that he interviewed Berman as U.S. attorney. Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, actually installed him as the U.S. attorney there in New York. And then a court approved him as the U.S. attorney. But we know that he has stepped aside. He's been recused from just that piece of the Michael Cohen probe. On other pieces, for instance, the New York prosecutors investigating the inaugural committee, he's not recused. So Berman is still the U.S. attorney there. But obviously Trump was concerned in particular about the Michael Cohen hush money payments issue.

Now, when Whitaker was asked about his conversations with the president during his House Judiciary testimony, he really tried to thread the needle, if you will, on what he would and wouldn't say. And when it came to his conversations with the president about Mueller, Whitaker was happy to give answers.

When it came to his conversations with Whitaker and the president about the Michael Cohen investigation and New York prosecutors, he was more circumspect. But let's take a listen to just a little bit of what he said about what the president did and didn't do, Brooke.



MATTHEW WHITAKER, FORMER ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel's investigation or any other investigation.



JARRETT: Of course, our reporting wasn't that he made any promises.

Our reporting is that the president was venting at him and was frustrated about what was going on in New York and at the Justice Department. Now, the Justice Department has just put out a statement backing what Whitaker's testimony had been there, reiterating that he didn't make any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel's investigation or any other investigation, and saying he stands by his testimony, Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right, Laura Jarrett, thank you so much.

Let's analyze all of what you just laid out there.

Elie Honig, a former U.S. assistant attorney in the Southern District of New York, is with us, as is Paul Rosenzweig, who's former senior counsel to Ken Starr during the Whitewater investigation.

So, gentlemen, Elie, starting with you, just out of the gate, is this obstruction?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: What else could it be? What other reason could the president have for calling Matt Whitaker right as the Cohen investigation was growing and starting to threaten him?

Now, clearly, Trump knew it was coming for him for a reason, and asking Whitaker, can we get my guy, Berman, the guy he interviewed? Sessions technically put him. That's a White House pick. To get my guy back in charge?

And the thing that jumped out to me at "The New York Times" article is Whitaker made some comment, like the Southern District needed to have some adult supervision. It's kind of laughable, when you consider Whitaker's credentials compared to the Southern District's.

But what that really means is, he wanted the Southern District to conform with Donald Trump's image of what prosecutors should do, which is protect him, Donald Trump, at all costs.

It's why he was so furious Sessions recused himself, because then Sessions wasn't there to protect the president. It's why he was so furious at James Comey for proceeding.

And so we have seen this pattern. I don't see an innocent explanation for this.

BALDWIN: Paul, what do you think?

PAUL ROSENZWEIG, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY OFFICIAL: Well, it's really hard to come up with an innocent explanation for asking somebody to unrecuse from a refusal that seems wholly appropriate.

I think it is likely that this would form the basis for additional investigation both by the Southern District of New York into -- in attempts to interfere with its criminal investigation of the Trump enterprise, the Trump Organization.

But, also, frankly, this is a fit ground for congressional inquiry, since this sort of abuse of power, this sort of violation of the independence of the Department of Justice in a case involving his very own conduct is precisely the sort of authoritarian activity that the impeachment process was intended to stand as a bulwark against.

BALDWIN: So, am I hearing that this could potentially be an impeachable offense?

ROSENZWEIG: Well, it's of a piece with the activity that led to the impeachment proceedings against Nixon and led to the impeachment proceedings against Clinton.

It's a little early to say for sure what the facts are, since we -- Mr. Whitaker has sort of denied this. But if the facts prove out as it is, this is -- this is potentially impeachable.

BALDWIN: It paints a picture of certainly his mind-set, of the president's mind-set, why he would have selected -- excuse me -- Whitaker, because, Elie, part of the "Times" piece, Mr. Whitaker, who had privately told associates that part of his role at the Justice Department, right, taking on this active A.G. position, was to jump on a grenade for the president.

HONIG: Yes, I think that's what we cynics said about Whitaker. It's interesting to hear him saying that himself out.

There was flashing red lights about Whitaker's appointment from the start. He was vastly underqualified for that position. He was nowhere in the chain of succession.

I do not think it is a coincidence that three of the president's most consequential picks, Brett Kavanaugh, now on the Supreme Court, Matt Whitaker, and now William Barr, what do they all have in common? All of them before they were chosen by the president wrote theses in law school, law review papers, about how the president as the absolute right to start or limit or stop any investigation he wants, and it cannot be obstruction of justice.


HONIG: It unites all three of these, and it's the one common factor, and I don't think it's irrelevant to why the president chose them.

BALDWIN: Paul, you hit on this a second ago, but just to -- there are all these parallel track investigations, right? You have the special counsel investigation. You have the SDNY investigation, which is what we're talking about, where he wanted Mr. Berman to unrecuse himself, so that he could be over to perhaps restack the deck, so to speak.

But how might -- if this turns out, listening to you guys, if this could constitute obstruction, would this at all affect the Mueller investigation, Paul?

ROSENZWEIG: It could. It could.

It's probably outside of the scope of Mueller's investigation directly. It could reflect on him in the sense that it's another aspect of the president's efforts to undermine that investigation. But this is more kind of in the core of the Southern District of New York, in their investigation of Cohen, of the Trump Organization, of the Trump inaugural committee, and the president, the subject of the investigations, ongoing efforts to obstruct that very investigation.


So this will circle back, I think, not to Mueller, but back to the Southern District of New York, back to Manhattan

BALDWIN: And isn't it extraordinary, just ending with you, and all of us your experience with SDNY?

We talked for months and months and months and months about this Mueller investigation, and who knows when that will come to a conclusion. But it could be this SDNY piece, Michael Cohen, that, dot, dot, dot.

HONIG: You can't sleep on the Southern District of New York ever, and Donald Trump clearly knows that, and that's what's got him all amped up right now.

BALDWIN: OK, Elie Honig and Paul Rosenzweig, guys, stand by for me. We're going to more on this.

Plus, we also want to talk about the stunning turn in the Roger Stone case. The judge there ordering him back to court this Thursday after he posted an image of her on his Instagram next to a set of crosshairs.

And we have just learned that Senator Bernie Sanders has raised a million dollars in online donations in a matter of hours after launching his 2020 presidential campaign, but the math isn't all entirely in his favor.

We will break down what he has to do to win over some key voting blocs in this country.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.



BALDWIN: All right, we're back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Now to the man with the Nixon tattoo. He is adding a new rule to his infamous list, attack, attack, attack, and then say you're sorry. Today, a federal judge calling Roger Stone back to court after he appeared to threaten her in an inflammatory social media post.

Stone's Instagram account posted and then deleted a picture showing Judge Amy Berman Jackson next to crosshairs, mimicking the scope of a rifle. The post also attacked the judge, labeling her an Obama- appointed judge and claim legal trickery by deep state Robert Mueller, guaranteed the judge would oversee a show trial.

After deleting the post and disabling the comments, Stone and his attorneys quickly issued separate apologies via court filings. Today, Judge Jackson ordered Stone to appear in her federal court on Thursday for a new hearing on his gag order.

The judge wants him to explain his Instagram posts and decide if she should change or revoke the media contact order and the conditions of Stone's release.

Elie Honig back with me.

And so flash forward with me to just Thursday. What are the judge's options?

HONIG: So the judge can do nothing. She can decide it was some sort of misunderstanding. Not likely.

She can change his bail conditions. She can put him on tighter supervision, require him to check in more, or she can remand him. She can send them to jail pending his trial.

BALDWIN: Super quickly, you have theories on why he's doing this.

HONIG: Two theories.

One, he's Roger Stone. It's like beavers are going to build a dam. Roger Stone is going to do wild, inflammatory things. It's nature. BALDWIN: Yes.

HONIG: Two, though, there's sometimes a strict strategic play, where a defendant, if he doesn't like his judge, thinks if I can make it personal between me and the judge, or if I can turn the judge into a witness, potentially, did you feel threatened, that kind of thing, then the judge will have to recuse and they will put in a new judge.

It never works, though. Defendants try it. They want to get out from under their judge. The judges know it, and they will not play along with this. Judge Jackson will not recuse herself because of this.

BALDWIN: OK. We will talk again about her and him on Thursday.

Elie, you're the best. Thank you very much.

HONIG: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Just ahead here, as Senator Bernie Sanders now jumps into the presidential race, a college student asks 2020 Democrat Amy Klobuchar whether or not she supports free tuition. Hear why she was so confident in saying, actually, no, I don't.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: We're on a college campus so you know many of the...

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that. I know that. But I have got to -- I have got to tell the truth.




BALDWIN: Senator Bernie Sanders is out today with a clear message about 2020 to his supporters. It's time to, he says, complete the revolution.

And Vermont's independent senator believes he is the one to do just that, jumping into this crowded Democratic field, one where several of his rivals have now adopted the policies he touted just a couple years ago.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In 2016, many of the ideas that I talked about, Medicare for all, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, making public colleges and universities tuition- free, all of those ideas, people said, oh, Bernie, they're so radical, they are extreme, the American people just won't accept those ideas.

Well, you know what's happened in over three years? All of those ideas and many more are now part of the political mainstream. QUESTION: So you're saying the party came your way?

B. SANDERS: Well, I don't want to say that. I think most people would say that.


BALDWIN: Harry Enten is our CNN senior political writer and analyst.

And so the deal is, according to a source from the Sanders camp, he raised a million dollars.


BALDWIN: In a matter of hours.

ENTEN: I wish I could raise that much.

BALDWIN: After he announced this morning.


BALDWIN: But you say that there are several key groups, key constituents who he still needs to win over.

ENTEN: Money doesn't necessarily mean votes.

So if we look back on the 2016 Democratic primary, let's look through the groups that Sanders needs to improve upon.


ENTEN: So, first off, African-American voters, right?

Hillary Clinton won those by 57 percentage points. They make up 20 percent of the Democratic primary base. You remember Bernie Sanders struggling in those Southern primaries, South Carolina specifically. If he's going to do well in 2020, do better than he did in 2016, he needs to close this gap in 2020.

BALDWIN: Which explains maybe why he came on so strong in that...


ENTEN: Exactly right.

Another group -- look, Bernie Sanders is an independent senator from Vermont. He makes a key point of that, right? But, remember, this is a Democratic primary. So even though he won independent voters by 29 percentage points, he lost Democratic voters by 27 percentage points.

And the reason why that's so big is because Democratic -- self- identified Democratic voters make up 75 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. You, simply put, cannot do so poorly among Democrats in order to win a Democratic primary. BALDWIN: OK.

ENTEN: Let's look at another group, older voters.

Look, Bernie Sanders, despite being the oldest man in the race, was the candidate the youth, but older voters, those over the age of 45, make up about 60 percent of primary voters. He lost them by 33 percentage points back...

BALDWIN: Interesting.

ENTEN: It is very interesting.

He needs to do significantly better with that group if he's going to win in 2020.


ENTEN: Another group, perhaps not so surprisingly, going up against Hillary Clinton, he lost women voters by 22 percentage points in the average state.


They, of course, make up about 60 percent of Democratic primary voters. So the fact that he did so poorly, he has to close this gap significantly in 2020.


ENTEN: Finally, I will point out, look, despite the fact that Bernie Sanders was the very liberal candidate, he actually -- he actually didn't do that well among them. He tied Hillary Clinton.

If he's going to win, he's going to have to do better with this base. And with so many more liberal candidates in the race this time around, I'm not sure he can do it, but if he's going to win, he's going to have to win with this base in order to do so.

BALDWIN: He's sharing the lane now...


ENTEN: Sharing the lane, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren.


ENTEN: That might make it difficult for him to be able to use this base to his advantage.

BALDWIN: OK. Harry Enten, thank you very much.

ENTEN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: So, Bernie Sanders acknowledged that the Democratic Party has moved closer to his way of thinking, but call Senator Amy Klobuchar kind of a skeptic.

Unlike several of her rivals, the Minnesota senator and the White House hopeful has maintained a more centrist approach to policy, something she made quite clear during CNN's town hall last tonight in New Hampshire.


KLOBUCHAR: First of all, I believe this is unconstitutional, what he is doing. OK?

I will, as first day as the president, sign us back into the international climate change agreement. That is on day one.


KLOBUCHAR: I think that they are aspirations. I think we can get close. I don't think we are going to get rid of entire industries in the U.S.

There's going to be compromises. It's not going to be exactly like that

LEMON: So, no Medicare for all?

KLOBUCHAR: It could be a possibility in the future. I'm just looking at something that will work now.

I always look at every proposal and say, would this hurt my Uncle Dick in the deer stand?

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, if you -- you can do all you can to integrate a lunch counter, but if you can't afford a hamburger, what good did you do?

Am I a tough boss? Sometimes, yes. Have I pushed people too hard? Yes. But I have kept expectations for myself that are very high.

I am not for free four-year college for all, no.

If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would.

LEMON: We're on a college campus so you know many of the...

KLOBUCHAR: I know that. I know that. But I have got to -- I have got to tell the truth. I mean, we have this mounting...



BALDWIN: Symone Sanders was the national press secretary for Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign. And Jess McIntosh was the director of communications outreach for the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign.

Ladies, good to have both of you on.

And, Symone, I mean, flash back to 2016, and obviously you were you were like the chief of feeling the Bern. And now you just saw all of the groups who Harry just ran through where, A, he's now sharing the lane, espousing progressive policies with all these other candidates, A.

And, B, he's got some serious ground to make up from 2016. So how does he do it?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think that the key thing that will confront the Sanders 2020 campaign will be how to distinguish himself in a field of 15 to 20 Democratic candidates, many of which who say they believe in universal health care, many of which that have different proposals about taxing the rich and doing things for middle -class Americans.

And so I think the thing he will have to do is be able to say, this is why you should pick me. And, frankly, I think that's something the senator has to work on. I think you saw in the Vermont -- in the VPR interview he did today with a local Vermont newspaper that he said, it's not enough to be a candidate that is just a woman or a person color or so on and so forth.

And we have heard different iterations of that from him over the last couple months or so. And I don't necessarily believe that that is the pitch, if you will.


BALDWIN: If I may, is that a little tone-deaf, given the array of diversity within even all these candidates who will be vying for the nomination along with him?

S. SANDERS: I don't know if it's so much as tone-deaf as it is -- look, I don't speak for Senator Sanders. I'm not saying -- but I -- perhaps it's a jab.


S. SANDERS: I mean, it's a real, I think, characterization of what the race is.

And I will say that no one in this race, not any of the women who are also running for president, not any of the people of color who are -- also happen to be presidential candidates, are saying, vote for me because I'm a woman, vote for me because I'm a person of color, vote for me.


S. SANDERS: Mayor Buttigieg is not saying, vote for me because I'm gay.

And so that part is tone-deaf, because nobody is saying that. And so I think if that's something that Senator Sanders does continue to say, you might hear other presidential candidates hit back.

So right now, we're having this very highfalutin policy conversation. It might not be so highfalutin policy conversation...


BALDWIN: Isn't it nice talking policy, though?


S. SANDERS: But we don't know if it'll stay this way.


BALDWIN: I know. I know. I hear you.

But, for now, on policy, like even looking at a Senator Sanders vs. a Senator Klobuchar, they couldn't be more different within the Democratic lane, right, the pragmatist and the progressive.

You know the Democratic Party. Who do Democrats really want?

JESS MCINTOSH, EMILY'S LIST: Well, that's why I have always said that I was way less afraid of a 20-way primary then I was a two- or a four- way primary, because we don't have to choose between Senator Klobuchar and Senator Sanders.