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Interview with Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD); Ex-Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen to Testify Before Congress Today. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 27, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:27] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. And to our viewers in the United States, and around the world, welcome to CNN's special live coverage of Michael Cohen's public testimony at the House of Representatives Oversight Committee.

I'm Jake Tapper in Washington, D.C.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Wolf Blitzer here in Washington as well.

Cohen arriving on Capitol Hill just moments ago. There you see some of the video coming in. One hour from now, President Trump's former lawyer, his confidant, his fixer will unleash a breathtaking point-by- point takedown like none seen against the sitting of the president of the United States in this type of setting since Watergate.

In a 20-page opening statement released last night, Cohen calls his former boss a man for whom he once claimed he'd take a bullet, a racist, a conman and a cheat. He says the president knew his campaign aide Roger Stone was in touched with WikiLeaks ahead of the release of the hacked Democratic Party e-mails.

He says he believes the president knew in advance of the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer and he says it was understood that he, Cohen, would lie to Congress about attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That of course one of the crimes for which Cohen is about to serve a three-year prison sentence.

TAPPER: And aware that his credibility is to say the least under attack, Cohen will back up some of the claims today with documentary evidence. One is a personal check for $35,000 that Cohen says is partial reimbursement of the hush money that Cohen shelled out to adult film star and director Stormy Daniels just days before the election.

Through it all, the president is of course half a world away, 12 hours away, holding a summit that at other times would claim the world's undivided attention. But now despite that half-day time difference, the president himself is expected to be watching Cohen's testimony live.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill for us right now.

Set the scene for us, Manu.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right now here on Rayburn Office Building, Jake, the halls are packed with people waiting to get into this hearing room. Members of Congress should be arriving shortly. Michael Cohen also has already arrived on Capitol Hill.

This hearing will be extremely contentious. Each member will have five minutes to ask questions. Democrats are trying to get him to lay out his story in detail into allegations against the president, allegations about the president involved in a criminal scheme to silence women who made allegations that they had an affair as well as new information about what the president may have known about that effort to obtain WikiLeaks hacked e-mails that the president himself has denied.

Republicans are going to go after him very aggressively. The question is credibility, the question is character. And go after him so expect a lot of fireworks in the hearing that's going to take all day long here in just a second up, three on Capitol Hill but of course the one that's public that we'll all see here -- Jake.

TAPPER: Manu Raju, thanks so much.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Gloria, there are several what they call presidency threatening scandals that Michael Cohen details in this 20-page opening statement.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it does. We have the president saying, and Evans knows about this because he was a part of the story that CNN did and in an interview with the Associated Press, that he has no recollection of any conversation with Roger Stone about WikiLeaks, and we have Michael Cohen testifying that Stone told Mr. Trump he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange, as Cohen listened in on the speaker phone and that within a couple of days that there would be a massive dump of e-mails that are going to damage Hillary Clinton and the candidate's response was, "Wouldn't that be great?"

TAPPER: In fact let's punch that up, if we can, a full screen 110 just to bring up the actual testimony. It says, "In July 2016 days before the Democratic convention I was in Mr. Trump's office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone." This is from Cohen's testimony.

"Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on speaker phone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange," that's the head of WikiLeaks. "And that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that within a couple of days there would be a massive dump of e-mails that would damage Hillary Clinton's campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of, wouldn't that be great," as you said, Gloria.

That is quite interesting and certainly contradicts what we have heard from the president and his team.

BORGER: Exactly. And there's also another large contradiction here and that involved the payments to the mistresses. I mean, Michael Stone -- Michael Cohen describes going into the Oval Office for the first time in February after the president had been elected, is all excited about it, the president shows him around, and then eventually the president says, don't worry, those checks are coming to you.

[09:05:14] Now we know in that tape we showed over and over again that the president denies any knowledge of payments to Stormy Daniels and of course it seems from Michael Cohen's testimony that is just the opposite. And as you just showed, there is even a cancelled check which I might point out does not have a memo on it that says payment for mistresses to be quiet. But he does have this cancelled check that he's going to show to the committee.

BLITZER: Evan, how monumental is this, the WikiLeaks aspect?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I think the president in his take-home test and his lawyers came up with that answer that I think protects him. You can say that it's a contradiction but I think from a lawyer's perspective, I think it protects the president because he'd say, I don't have a recollection of such a conversation happening. I don't have a recollection of having a discussion with Roger Stone about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

And so I think from the president's standpoint, I think he feels very protective. I think you're right this is a monumental day simply because you never had someone this close to the president is going spend several hours talking about all of the intimate details of conversations and all of these things. And, you know, I think the president's team is going to point out that he's admitted to lying so the question is, when do you believe him and when do you think he's lying.

TAPPER: Jeffrey Toobin, what do you think is the most significant part of the testimony?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: The cancelled check. I think the corroboration of his -- of Michael Cohen's story that the whole payment to Stormy Daniels was instigated by Donald Trump, not Michael Cohen himself. That, which is a crime to which Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty for, that if he can establish that this was done at Trump's instigation, which frankly is logical, I mean, why would Cohen do it without -- you know, it didn't benefit Cohen. It benefited Trump.

And the fact that this check exists and presumably other checks exist and federal express of the checks being delivered, that I think is extremely incriminating.

TAPPER: And this is one of the several checks. This one of course dated August in 2017. Is it significant that -- is it significant that he was president at the time of this check being cut?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's not significant as a legal matter. You know, he's a sitting president so DOJ says he can't be indicted. So it doesn't matter when the crime occurred for those purposes. I think it matters in terms of the optics, though. You know, here's someone who, as he's president, oh, I don't know anything about this and then we learned that, you know, much less far back in the past that he would have originally thought he's writing these checks so legally no but politically possible.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. I want to bring in right now Democratic congressman, Jamie Raskin, of Maryland. He serves on the House Oversight Committee. He will be among those questioning Michael Cohen very soon.

Congressman Raskin, thanks for joining us. First of all, what do you think is most significant in Cohen's prepared testimony?

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D), OVERSIGHT AND REFORM COMMITTEE: Well, he's given us a specific documentation and recitation of the president's involvement in criminal activity that he has had pled guilty to. So we're going to want to nail down the details very specifically about the president's involvement in the hush money payoffs to the various women which constituted illegal campaign, contributions and expenditures at the same time.

So there is clearly a conspiracy to circumvent the law of the United States there . That's pretty significant. But there are hints and glimpses of a lot of other things that the committee would want to follow during the questioning period of his discussion. But, you know, obviously, this is a man who is burdening himself and he's called the president a racist, a conman and a cheat.

But we also want to know, you know, tell us some things that we don't know. So there's going to be a lot of -- you know a lot of fruitful paths of inquiry here today.

TAPPER: It does seem as though Michael Cohen is really just opening Donald Trump's closet and spilling out as many skeletons as he can. We have information in here about -- in the Cohen's testimony about his Vietnam deferments, President Trump's Vietnam deferments about how much his network actually is.

I mean, it's kind of like a greatest hits if you will of everything the president doesn't like to talk about. I don't know how legally significant these details are and I wonder if you are concerned at all that it will come off as Michael Cohen just trying to get revenge.

RASKIN: Well, some are significant and some are not. And obviously that's going to be the job of the Oversight Committee and other committees in Congress to determine -- you know, well, what are significant issues that go to basic policy questions and basic questions of the character of our government.

[09:10:14] I mean, the big story in my mind is that we have a president who has turned the government of the United States of America into a money-making operation for himself, for his family, for business and for his friends. And nowhere is there any mention in any of these documents about the president asking what's best for the American people, what's best for the public interest. It's all about how much money he can make and what kind of inside deals he can accomplish.

And so we want to try to get the best, the most fine grain portrait we can of what's taking place within the Trump operation and to nail down the illegality and then we've got to start to ask the question about whether this is a president who is an actual threat to the character of our republic.

TAPPER: Congressman Raskin, the head Republican on your committee, Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, has pointed out that Democrats have called Michael Cohen to testify before Congress and then in May, Michael Cohen is going to go in prison partly because he had previously lied to Congress.

How do you square the circle there? How do you know that he's going to be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when he has already lied to Congress?

RASKIN: Well, this is a president who, at least by the accounting of the "Washington Post," just told more than 8,000 lies and he's surrounded by a team of liars and purveyor --

TAPPER: Not under oath, though. I'm not defending it but there is a difference between --

RASKIN: Yes, yes -- well, no.

TAPPER: lies to the public.

RASKIN: But the point --

TAPPER: And lies under oath.

RASKIN: Yes. The point I'm making is that lying is the modus operandi of the Trump White House. So what do you expect the refugee from the Trump's axis to be. I mean, it's somebody who's obviously very familiar with lying. But look, my Republican colleagues, let's be clear, they're not upset because Michael Cohen is lying. They're upset because he stopped lying. That's the difference. He's somebody who's going to jail for having told these lies but he's coming clean now.

But we have a president who obviously is still up to his neck in the lies of his administration. So we're trying to get into the truth here. Obviously he's under oath today and obviously we're looking for documentation for the things that he's saying. But this is one of the problems when you try to penetrate the fog of propaganda and lies which are the Trump White House.

TAPPER: Congressman Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, thank you so much. Appreciate your time today, sir.

RASKIN: Delighted to be with you.

BLITZER: Not even a nuclear summit with a brutal dictator can overshadow this Cohen testimony today. The president watching some 8,000 miles away. We're going live to Hanoi when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] BLITZER: President Trump is expected to be tuning into Michael Cohen's explosive testimony even though it's after 9:00 p.m. already in Hanoi, Vietnam.

TAPPER: The President is back at his hotel after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this morning. Let's go right to our CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is following the president in Hanoi, Vietnam, good morning, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT & CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Good morning, Jake. And what an extraordinary confluence of events here. The president here in Hanoi, meeting face-to-face with what is arguably the most immediate threat to U.S. national security, that is North Korea, its nuclear program.

While at home, he faces a clear and present danger, possibly to his presidency with Michael Cohen's testimony. It is certain that President Trump is aware of that as he is here. He was tweeting about it. His staff took the extraordinary steps of attempting to exclude all reporters from asking any questions of him as he had dinner with the North Korean leader, only relenting in the end to allow one in.

It's also certain that the North Korean leader is aware of the problems at home for this president. This is a leader seeking any advantage in these negotiations. And I will tell you this, Jake and Wolf, that going into this, I was told by members of the president's own national security team that they were concerned about a softening of U.S. positions, U.S. demands coming into these talks.

And a wider concern that the president may give up too much to get a win as it were from these talks. And you can argue that, he has a greater incentive for a win with the concerns about what Michael Cohen is going to testify to today. I will say though that his advisors maintain hope that what has been this combination of a personal relationship with the North Korean leader and tough economic sanctions will win them something in these talks.

We will see today, and the president will be attempting this while watching that testimony back in the U.S.

BLITZER: Is it your sense, Jim, over there that the Cohen testimony that's about to begin up on Capitol Hill, and we already have his 20- page opening statements. Do they sense -- the people in the president's entourage over there that this is overshadowing this important meeting with Kim Jong-un?

SCIUTTO: Well, certainly, shadowing it, right? And again, you would only attempt to ban reporters from asking questions about it if you were concerned about that, and that banning and again only relenting to allow one in for that dinner happened because reporters as you would expect them to do, asked the president questions and shouted questions to him at that moment we're showing there in those pictures as he stood with the North Korean leader. They were upset with those questions. So wanted to shield the

president, we don't know if it's at the president's request, but they attempted that. So he's certainly thinking about it, whether it overshadows in the end may come down to what is agreed to if anything in these talks.

There was a lot of expectations, management coming in, a lot of placing of the burden on the North Korean leader saying that progress is up to him. But again, as I said, also concerns even internally in his own White House that President Trump will go rogue as it were and agree to concession as he did in the last summit in June in Singapore.

[09:20:00] At that summit, giving up nuclear -- giving up rather military exercises with the south without consulting even his allies. Does the president do something similar here in light of the challenges he faces at home? A genuine concern among some of his own advisors.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly is our Jim Sciutto in Hanoi, we'll stay in close touch with you. Let's bring in CNN senior political commentator, David Axelrod who is with us. How do you think the president is handling this truly extraordinary development meeting with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the same time we're about to hear this explosive testimony from his once -- his once very close fixer --

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes --

BLITZER: And lawyer.

AXELROD: You have to say, this is a classic Trump era split-screen story, right? The president with this audacious meeting overseas with the dictator of North Vietnam and --

TAPPER: North Korea --

AXELROD: North Korea and his fixer, right? His former fixer testifying before Congress, calling him a racist and a cheat and a con-man. And there's no doubt that this story is stepping on that story. And he is -- I think what Jim Sciutto raised is they will think that people should be a little concerned about does the president feel the need to come up with something spectacular out of these meeting?

Something that he can tout as a historic agreement in order to overshadow what we're going to hear on Capitol Hill today.

TAPPER: And previous presidents have been -- especially Bill Clinton, I would say were praised or criticized for being able to compartmentalize. This scandal is going on, but I'm going to focus on this. This president -- whatever you think of him, I don't think a compartmentalization is one of his strengths.

This morning from Vietnam, he tweeted, "Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me unfortunately, he did bad things unrelated to Trump, he is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using crooked's lawyer." That's a reference to Hillary Clinton.

I know that there are people in the national security community who are like Jim Sciutto alluded to, concerned that the president has this on his mind instead of this audacious hope, we all hope that he succeeds to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

AXELROD: You know, in some ways, we should note that those discussions with Kim Jong-un are in the long-term more important in many ways than what we were going to see on Capitol Hill today. Because if he enters into an agreement that his national security adviser don't believe in the interest of the country, they're going to have long-term implications for national security of all of our people and our allies in the regions.

So it is a concerning thing, his mindset is a concerning thing. But I think the lesson here, Jake, is that if you have someone called a fixer because he wasn't just one of the president's lawyers --

TAPPER: No --

AXELROD: And we know that. If you have someone in your employee called your fixer or everyone knows as your fixer, do not antagonize them, do not piss them off, do not encourage them to become your enemy because the returns can be very bitter.

TAPPER: Or don't have a fixer, that's the other thing --

AXELROD: Well, that would be the other thing, yes, that's plan B.

BLITZER: He wasn't just a fixer, he was a lawyer, a confidante for a decade. Plus, that they worked very closely together. When you read that opening statement that Michael Cohen is about to deliver, what's the most startling thing that jumped out at you?

AXELROD: You know, look, I think that the notion that he knew about the e-mails, that he knew about the conversations that Roger Stone was having was the thing that jumped out to me. I'm also eager to hear because it wasn't explained here exactly what edits the president's lawyer has made in his testimony for which he is now going to pay a price for perjury.

Did they encourage him to change any of the timelines in his testimony. But you know, the other thing that struck me was, I thought that the peace was unduly gratuitous. I'm not sure I would have used phrases like "racist" and "con-man" and "cheat". Because it throws it into the -- into the area of the personal of the political and maybe reduces the power of the substantive things that Michael Cohen has to offer.

TAPPER: That's what I was asking Congressman Raskin about earlier today. If it seems like this is based on revenge, with all the references to really sore a subject for the president, the bone spur deferments to get out of Vietnam --

AXELROD: That's completely gratuitous --

TAPPER: What his net worth actually is --

AXELROD: Yes, the stuff about his academics and not wanting his transcripts to be shared. I think it's gratuitous and it does have the kind of thumbprint or fingerprint of Lanny Davis here, his own television lawyer who we know has a tension for being provocative.

And I don't think if he was behind this, I don't think he served his client well here in the tone of this statement.

TAPPER: All right, David Axelrod, thanks so much, we're just minutes away from Michael Cohen's highly anticipated testimony to the House Oversight Committee. Stay with CNN for the very latest, we'll be right back.

[09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to CNN's special live coverage of Michael Cohen in Public Under Oath up on Capitol Hill. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

TAPPER: I'm Jake Tapper. We are just minutes away from a congressional hearing that even by the standards of the Trump era will be explosive and combative and possibly momentous. President Trump's former long-time lawyer and fixer is coming before the House Oversight Committee with a lot to get off his chest apparently before he heads to prison.

His prepared testimony is shocking. The hearing itself, a vivid display of the power now wielded by Democrats and the divided Congress.

BLITZER: Let's discuss with Republican Congressman James Comer of Kentucky, he sits on the House Oversight Committee, he'll be among those 42 members questioning Michael Cohen. Congressman, thanks for joining us.