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Michael Cohen Set to Testify Before Three Committees Next Week; Judge Places Roger Stone Under Strict Gag Order; Ballot Fraud Leads to New North Carolina Congressional Election. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 22, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:08] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Friday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington where it could be a newsy Friday.

What do you think, Poppy?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: What do you think, my friend? I think it might be so don't go anywhere.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. And as Jim said Washington is on edge this morning bracing for Special Counsel Mueller's final report on the Russia investigation. This report could come at any moment.

But first this. "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett is digging in this morning just hours after bonding out of jail. He was back on his set, the set of "Empire," gathered his fellow castmates and crew members and he apologized.

SCIUTTO: But instead of coming clean like many expected a person in the room said that Smollett once again told them that he is innocent, that he did not stage the assault. He also blasted the legal system in what he called unfair media coverage.

Joining us now, CNN's Ryan Young from Chicago. He's been following this from the beginning. And a lot of words come to mind here, Ryan. Mind boggling is one of them. He's still saying he didn't do it.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This is really playing out like a bad like reality TV show to a certain extent. I mean, this played out on this show yesterday live when the superintendent of police comes out and uses some very strong language. To give you an idea of just not only how angry the police department is but the fact of all the investigative hours they had put into it. And they started detailing all this.

But let's show that video once again of him leaving the jail because that to me really put this sort of in a capsule. All the cameras focused on him and then you hear the idea that maybe on set that he's doubling down and saying that everyone should believe him. Well, at this point you almost want to ask after all that's been put out there, what piece of evidence could he possibly have to double down?

And I can tell you investigators went a step further. When the assistant district attorney in the state's department came forward and basically said, look, this is what we have. We have communication between all three men. They believe they went and located the area where they wanted to do this. They pre-scouted it. Then they said that he gave them $100 to go buy the supplies.

We have video of the two brothers, the Osundairo brothers, buying the supplies at a beauty supply store. And then you think about the fact that he asked for the noose -- that's what the investigators are saying. And then on top of that, that he wanted to have gasoline poured on him. And they decided to go to bleach instead.

And there was even the detail that he showed up late for the attack. The brothers had to wait on a bench for him to arrive before going through the attack. And they wanted him to rough him up but not go too far.

All this was just mind boggling. I have heard so many tips about the story but I didn't know we were going to get that kind of detail yesterday. And then apparently the motive is, he was upset with compensation. It just doesn't make sense. You hope that you'll get more.

Don't forget, guys. Three weeks from now we've got to go to court again. He's out on $100,000 bond. So this story doesn't end.

SCIUTTO: Yes. The police even saying yesterday that the wounds were self-inflicted. The wound scratches on his face. Wonder if they have proof of that, too.

Ryan Young, thanks very much.

HARLOW: And great reporting on this.

So let's talk about all the legal implications here with Sara Azari. She's criminal defense attorney.

Good morning to you, Sara. I mean, this is fascinating.


HARLOW: It's confounding. I guess just your reaction first as an attorney to Jussie Smollett digging in here.

AZARI: Well, look, first of all I'm astonished at the strategy of his lawyers. If my client came to me and he had messed with the police and led them on a wild goose chase that caused thousands and thousands of dollars in an investigation that's a hoax, the last thing I would do is throw the police department under the bus and the media.

I would go in behind closed doors, I would do damage control, placate, mollify and beg them for a break for my client. So what they have done is bad, bad, bad.

Secondly, Smollett as we speak, as bad as all this evidence sounds, he is presumed innocent. And his lawyers need to go through all this evidence, look at these text messages. Were they in fact sent from phone to phone or are these screen shots? The $3500 payment, was it actually issued by him? Was it for this faux attack or perhaps for other services? We know one of the brothers was his personal trainer.

So a full and complete investigation has to be done into this evidence. And look, if Smollett is good for this crime, and if he in fact did this, he has to be a very disturbed man. And one of -- you know, what we do as criminal defense attorneys is look into what our clients are suffering from. What is it that led them to do the bad act?

HARLOW: Right.

AZARI: He needs some help. He needs to go away and get some help, and come back and make amends to the African-American community, to the gay community, and to the MAGA supporters and to the world really. Everyone is outraged.

HARLOW: And, Sara, to your point about presumption of innocence, right? Of course everyone has that.

AZARI: Right.

HARLOW: Until found guilty in a court of law.

AZARI: Right.

HARLOW: We didn't hear anything about that at all from the Chicago police superintendent.

[09:05:04] I mean, his press conference was live on our show yesterday morning. And Jim and I were just so struck by what we heard from him. What was your read on that as a criminal defense attorney? If you're sitting there listening to that and you're representing Jussie Smollett, what are you thinking?

AZARI: To an extent I think it's typical for the police to treat people like they are guilty just because there is accusations being made. And it's our job to step in and remind everybody, hey, my guy is innocent. But the other part of this is that this police department is pissed off. They have been led down a wild goose chase for weeks on a hoax. And they're upset. The city is upset. So, listen, you know, citizens lie to police officers. This has in recent years become criminalized. In this case it's being prosecuted.

But the police also frequently lie in investigations. So we've got to wait. We've got to let this unfold. As bad as it looks for Smollett, you know, there is still an independent investigation that his lawyers need to do. And if he's innocent their job is to prove his innocence. But I think the police department is -- largely their reaction is because they are so upset at this.


AZARI: That they're just presenting him very strongly as a guilty man, but he's not guilty.

HARLOW: And, Sara, finally, look, if this thing goes to trial, if he continues digging in, and saying I'm innocent here, if this goes to trial he seems like someone who would want to take the stand and testify in his own defense. If he were to do that, though, he has to tell the truth or else he could be guilty of perjury.

AZARI: Absolutely. Has to tell the truth, he'd be guilty of additional crimes such as perjury. I don't think if all of this evidence checks out and it is what it is as we've heard, I don't think it's not a good idea for him to go to trial. You know, he's facing one to three years. If he goes to trial and loses he's definitely getting up to the maximum. He's not getting on the low end of the sentence.

HARLOW: Right.

AZARI: So, you know, again, it's too early to determine whether he should go to trial or enter into plea negotiations. I think the best thing is for him to get out of the spotlight, voluntarily get out of his job. Go away, get the help that he needs and come back and sort of hope that people are not going to be as disgusted when they hear his name.

HARLOW: Sara Azari, appreciate your expertise from Los Angeles this morning.

AZARI: Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: Thanks very much.

Well, in Washington, D.C. this morning Robert Mueller is about to unveil one of his last major court filings, maybe the last one before he hands in his final report. And that's a big reason -- a big deal for two reasons, Jim.

SCIUTTO: It is. And we can learn a lot from this filing on the bigger picture here.


SCIUTTO: Today's sentencing memo for the ex-lobbyist and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is likely to spell out in rich detail the extent of the special counsel's findings in this long running case. And unlike Mueller's report, the court filing is a public record. And it will be on the Web right away when it's out.

The judge in this case is the same judge who yesterday threatened another Trump associate Roger Stone with jail if he says another public word about his case.

CNN's Kara Scannell joins me now. Been following this a long time. The key here is in this sentencing memo, the prosecutor has to tell us why he wants Manafort to go to jail for a certain period of time. Right? And in doing so he would then lay out his theory of the case? Is that the idea?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is where we can learn some additional information. And we look to see how much more Mueller expands on this. Because this memo is his opportunity to say, you know, the judge already knows what crimes Manafort has pled guilty to and what he has been convicted of in the other case. But now Mueller can sit there and write out the bigger picture of the case. He can go into things, the facts that they found, but they did not find it raised to the bar of criminal wrongdoing but are important for the judge to know. So it can be more of a narrative and fill in more of these blanks.

SCIUTTO: Facts about Manafort but also possibly Trump's involvement with him, et cetera?

SCANNELL: Well, it's possible. I mean, we've seen Mueller do that in some of these other filings and especially in Manafort's case. You know, with the whole process that we went through the past few weeks of him violating that plea agreement. We learned through the process of that.

Manafort wasn't charged with this but we learned through that, that he had lied about contacts he had with Konstantin Kilimnik, someone who the FBI says has associations with Russian intelligence, and lied about conversations he had during the campaign that goes to the kind of the core of Mueller's investigation of people at Trump's campaign communicating with Russians.

So we'll be looking very closely to see what more details Mueller lays out here. And it really is his chance to put more on the table and tell more information about this because we're expecting the report to be filed any day now.


SCANNELL: You know, even possibly today. And so that will be the end, the big final statement from Mueller.


SCANNELL: So all eyes on this document today to see what we're going to learn.

SCIUTTO: Right. And also possibly just a bigger sense of what he has turned up in terms of conspiracy, if there was conspiracy or involvement, communications, cooperation between Trump campaign and Russia, right?

[09:10:03] SCANNELL: Right. I mean, this can also include a lot of the information learned from Rick Gates, who's Manafort's deputy. And that has all been part of the filings that we've seen to date. Little dribs and drabs. This could be the big picture.

SCIUTTO: Yes. All right. That's good to know because I think folks at home, they're used to seeing dribs and drabs but this could give us a big picture. Not to mention the possibility, Poppy -- thanks to Kara Scannell, Poppy, of --


SCIUTTO: The final work being done from the special counsel. Everybody's on pins and needles.

HARLOW: Everyone certainly is.

All right. So stick with us for that and a lot more news this Friday. High stakes hearings just days from now as the president's former fixer Michael Cohen gears up for intense testimony on the Hill. He will face a grilling from three separate committees. What will he say?

Also, North Carolina calling for a redo, declaring a new election, a whole new election in that contested House race at the center of a fraud scandal.

SCIUTTO: It's remarkable. Well-documented. And we could be hours away from a tense stand-off in Venezuela. This over aid. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers set to fight to get desperately needed supplies such as food, medicine across the border as the humanitarian crisis there deepens. CNN is there on the scene.


[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Before he heads to prison for three years, Michael Cohen, the president's long-time fixer and lawyer is preparing to spend three days, like three very long days before three separate congressional committees.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Yes, two of those sessions before the House and the Senate Intelligence panels will take place behind closed doors. But on Wednesday, the president's former lawyer, former Trump Organization executive and self-proclaimed fixer will appear in public before the House Oversight Committee.

Our Evan Perez is here with the preview. It's going to be remarkable. And you saw Cohen tweet last night, I'm ready and excited to, you know, share my story and my words with the American people. He was on the Hill yesterday, we don't know what happened or --


HARLOW: Maybe you do. What was that about?

PEREZ: Well, you know, there's a bit of a mystery, I mean, the reporters didn't expect him to show up, and so then, of course, we started following him around. They won't say exactly what was going on. But we do know that he spent several hours and most of the day, in fact, behind closed doors in the secure rooms over there in the Senate Intelligence Committee which was where they keep like all of the classified documents.

And so, one possibility is that he was looking over his previous testimony. As you remember, Michael Cohen is -- has a bit of a challenge there because he has pleaded guilty to lying in that previous testimony. So perhaps, he was making sure he gets his story straight before next week.

So as you said, we have three days of Michael Cohen, one of them is going to be on Wednesday which is going to be public. The Tuesday one is going to be interesting, too, because even though it's behind closed doors, we're going to see actually some of the members of the committee showing up.

It's not just going to be staff doing the questioning. So that's going to be interesting. But the public one, of course, Poppy, and Jim, is going to be a spectacle. The president is going to be overseas in Vietnam doing his summit meeting with the North Koreans.

And then, there is the list of things that the House Oversight Committee says they want to ask of Michael Cohen, not only about the money and the president's business. But one of the things that stood out to me certainly, was the quote, unquote, "potentially fraudulent and inappropriate practices of the Trump foundation."

Obviously, this goes to the president, his family, his business, another one of course is the president's compliance with campaign finance laws which goes to those payments to the women, and the thing that Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to which is violation of those campaign finance laws in those payments. Poppy and Jim?

SCIUTTO: Listen, and once again, makes clear is that beyond the Mueller investigation, you have numerous investigations that will continue even after --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Mueller's work is done. Evan Perez, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Joining us now, CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan, National Political reporter for the "New York Times", Lisa Lerer, thanks to both of you. Lisa, if we can start with you and begin with Cohen's testimony next week. So he will not in the public forum be able to speak about the Russia aspects of this investigation. Those are ongoing.

He can't speak to other issues including the issue of these payments -- debts and payments relating to efforts to influence the 2016 election. Of course, hush money payments there. Tell us the significance of that testimony. Not only in terms of being embarrassing for the president, but legally damaging.

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it's definitely going to be deeply embarrassing for the president. Because don't forget that there are tapes. You remember, of course, that prosecutors raided Mr. Cohen's office, they raided his home, they gathered tons of information.

So some of that was about the hush money payments. But we've also seen numerous other investigations spin off from this, such as, you know, look into how the inauguration was funded. And they got -- Mr. Cohen was taping his conversations with the president who, you know, was not the president at that time. So the -- it's quite likely that the committee and the Democrats will

play those tapes and air them in public, and that's certainly going to be embarrassing for the president, and you know, definitely incriminating in some ways.

HARLOW: Paul Callan, you know, yes, beyond sort of the embarrassing, there is the real issue of credibility here, right? I mean, you're going to see committee members poking holes in Michael Cohen every which way this Sunday because he's lied to Congress before.

But how significant is it that the special counsel's team said in court a little over a month ago, quote, "Michael Cohen has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained. So he's got that going for his credibility, but he's got a big knock on it as well.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Poppy, he does have that going for him, and that's important because at least Mueller's credibility has always been pretty good I think with the American people and with Congress. However, he remains the Achilles heel of Donald Trump, I think.

[09:20:00] Because as his personal attorney, as his so-called fixer, the potential for severe embarrassment is enormous. Now, whether he's able to reveal something that would constitute an impeachable offense, I kind of have my doubts that we're going to see anything very new in this area. And the reason I say that is because remember, Mueller and Southern District prosecutors gave him sort of a limited credibility endorsement.

They didn't give him something called a 5K1 letter which you get a very substantial reduction in sentence because they felt he wasn't fully cooperative. He had held back information, and they still didn't trust him. So I think whatever we listen to from Michael Cohen, we have to listen very carefully, and I think you'll see a strong attack by the president's advocates on his credibility.

SCIUTTO: Lisa Lerer, the moment yesterday with Roger Stone in court, another associate of the president was remarkable. Just to see the difference between his public proclamations via Twitter full of vim and vigor, and then there before the dressing down by this judge, he's suddenly, you know, full of apology which she didn't accept frankly.

Tell us the significance of that. Because this is a judge who was also of course involved in the Manafort investigation.

LERER: It was a fascinating moment, and I think there's a couple of things going on here that are worth sort of getting into. First of all, Roger Stone is trying to raise money, he has to raise money for his legal defense, and this has been a way in the past that we've seen him, you know, he's the self-proclaimed dirty trickster.

He uses this kind of inflammatory rhetoric to draw attention to himself, to raise funds. But what's interesting here is that he is the third Trump associate to run afoul -- of a risk running a foul of the court. Risk their own personal freedom, their own legal cases to say the kinds of inflammatory things that we hear a lot from the president, that we know the president likes to hear from his supporters.

And you have to wonder why that is? Is that because they're trying to woo the president for a pardon or some sort of help in some way or is it just the eco-system that the president and the people around him have been in for a long time, sort of the rhetorical worlds in which --


LERER: They exist and thrive. We don't have the answer to that, but I think it is notable that Roger Stone isn't the only aide to the president we've seen take this kind of pretty risky tactic --


LERER: Before the court and before the judges.

SCIUTTO: And then backfiring and getting scolded and kind of walking away with his tail behind his legs, you know, right --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Poppy, it was a remarkable --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Difference.

HARLOW: Totally. Paul, finally, to you, I mean, we just had Kara Scannell explain, our great reporter explain some sentencing memo that we're going to get. The final sentencing memo for Mueller's team in the Manafort case today. What are you looking for in that, that could be significant for the president or others in the Trump orbit.

CALLAN: Well, I think you have to jump back to the primary purpose of the Mueller investigation originally. And that was demonstrating the existence over the lack of connections between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And Manafort has always been viewed by Mueller as a key link in that investigation because of Manafort's extensive contacts in Ukraine and with Russian sympathizers in Ukraine.

So this remains a very important document, and I think we'll start to see hints of where the ultimate Mueller report will go. How strong were the Russian connections? How strong will his collusion case be ultimately if he launches collusion charges against the campaign.

HARLOW: OK, Paul Callan, nice to have you, Lisa Lerer, great to have you on the show, thank you both very much -- Jim?

SCIUTTO: North Carolina is headed for a second house election after documentation of ballot fraud with the possible involvement of the Republican candidate. This is a remarkable and important story, we'll have more coming up. [09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: A dramatically and really shocking turn of events overnight in North Carolina, and in an extraordinary case of apparent voter fraud involving a Republican candidate for Congress.

The State Election board decided to throw out the 2018 results for the House seat there in the ninth congressional district, and hold an entirely new election. And follows a month's long probes stemming from a political operative hired by Republican candidate Mark Harris' campaign.

State investigators say that man Leslie McCrae Dowless was behind a scheme to illegally collect and tamper with absentee ballots, tilting the election in Harris' favor. Of course, Dowless says that's not true. But Harris who insisted throughout four days of testimony, he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing, he made this statement to the board just yesterday.


MARK HARRIS, REPUBLICAN NORTH CAROLINA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Neither I nor any leadership of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that had been testified to in this hearing. Through the testimony, I have listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called.


HARLOW: Dianne Gallagher has been following this. She joins us this morning from Raleigh, North Carolina. Look, he himself says a new election should be called. That's a dramatic about-face. Do we know what led him to this?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, first, let me tell you what both Harris and his attorneys say led him to this. That despite for the past two and a half months, urging the board to immediately certify him as a congressman and calling accusations of election fraud liberal conspiracies.

They say he came into this hearing with an open mind, and that the testimony was extremely compelling, starting with the very first witness, a worker who under oath said that, that operative paid her to illegally collect ballots to forge signatures, to sign ballots as a witness that she did not witness.

But really, it was likely the testimony of his oldest son, John Harris that was the most damaging, both emotionally and likely in the eyes of the board.