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Interview with Rep. James Comer (R-KY); Cohen Faces Grilling; Interview with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 27, 2019 - 09:30   ET

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


[09:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Forty-two members questioning Michael Cohen.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

What's the most important thing, the most startling revelation that you read in Michael Cohen's opening statement?

REP. JAMES COMER (R), KENTUCKY: Well, there are so many. I don't know where to begin. A couple of things already raised a cloud of suspicion for me.

First of all, the fact that you all at CNN got a big part of his testimony before we did, the Republicans on the Oversight Committee. And, secondly, the fact that the Republicans weren't able to have a minority witness on the stand to testify as well. It's the first time in my entire two-year term -- two years in Congress that we've never been able to have our own witness there, too.

But I look forward to the testimony today and we'll see how it goes.

BLITZER: It wasn't just us, by the way, at CNN. It was all -- all the major news organization got an advance copy of his opening statement.

It's a significance statement and I want to ask you what you were planning on asking Michael Cohen.

COMER: Well, I want to talk about the bank fraud. I think that we have to first determine, is Michael Cohen a credible witness. And the fact that he's already once lied to Congress, that's a -- that's definitely a question mark there. But the fact that so many of the things that he's going to accuse President Trump of doing in his opening testimony, he himself had done in the private sector. And aside from the fact that he was President Trump's personal attorney.

So, you know, I just think that the credibility of the witness today is certainly suspect, but hopefully we'll be able to find some truthful information out, if that's possible, coming from Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: The -- one of your Republican colleagues, Matt Gaetz of Florida, he's not a member of this committee, he tweeted this yesterday and it caused a lot, a lot of shock. Hey, Michael Cohen, do your wife and father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she'll remain faithful when you're in prison. She's about to learn a lot.

Now, overnight, Gaetz has apologized. He's deleted the tweet. He got a lot of pushback, including from the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What's your reaction to what he did?

COMER: Well, that's certainly not anything I would have done, but I'm glad that Representative Gaetz deleted the tweet. This is certainly a passionate, emotional time for people in both parties. You have so many Democrats that want to see the president fail and so many Republicans who want to see the president succeed. So I think emotions are running high on both sides. Hopefully we'll keep it in check during this committee hearing and hopefully we'll be able to find some element of the truth about Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: Did you see that tweet from Congressman Gaetz as a threat, witness intimidation, because, as you know, this is on the eve -- this was on the eve of his testimony as a critically important witness this morning before your committee.

COMER: I've seen tweets from members of both parties that would be suspicious in my mind as to why they would tweet something like that. Unfortunately, you know, things like that happen. But Congressman Gaetz is not going to be a part of the committee today. So I really don't think that it matter that much.

I think, from this point on, you're going to see professionalism on the parts of the Republicans on the Oversight Committee. But we have some serious questions about Michael Cohen. You know, the fact that he's the soul witness and the fact that he's already lied once to Congress, he's a convicted felon who was just disbarred this week from the New York Bar. I mean the credibility factor with Michael Cohen is probably the lowest we've ever seen for a major witness in congressional testimony history.

BLITZER: So you're raising questions of your committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, today, that you feel he's not, what, doing a fair job in organizing this hearing today? Is that what you're saying?

COMER: Absolutely that's what I'm saying. You know, every hearing that I've ever been a part of, not just on the Oversight Committee but on the Agriculture Committee and on the Education Committee, the minority side has a witness that they can question as well. We were not given that opportunity. Many of us would like to have test -- subpoena Rod Rosenstein because that's where the source of this investigation started. And I think that, you know, if you're going to be fair and be fair and balanced, then you have to have a fair and balanced groups of people testifying.

We have Michael Cohen, who obviously has a grudge. Michael Cohen, who is an admitted liar. She's a convicted felon. He's someone that, in my eyes, is a very selfish person. He's someone that was supposed to be representing Trump, but it appears to me, anyway, that he was representing himself.

Now, I'm going to get to question Michael Cohen today. I'm going to sit there for probably four hours and listen to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle question Michael Cohen. And I'll be able to have a better opinion after the testimony today. But I can tell you right now, I think that the Democrats have a very flawed witness. This is obviously their first step in trying to set up a process to impeach the president. And I don't think that the American people are very supportive of a political theater in an attempt to impeach the president over a potential campaign finance violation.

[09:35:12] BLITZER: Are you and your colleagues, your Republican colleagues on the committee, and there's a lot of them, you're going to have a chance to say whatever you want and question Michael Cohen with whatever you want as well. We're looking forward to this hearing.

Congressman James Comer, thanks so much for joining us.

COMER: Thank you, Wolf.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Just an interesting note. The ones blocking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein from testifying before Congress are -- it's interesting to blame them on the Democratic Chairman Elijah Cummings. It's actually the Republicans who run the Trump administration blocking Rod Rosenstein from testifying before Congress. But we'll leave that where it is.

Let's discuss this all with Carl Bernstein, who's a CNN political analyst. And, of course, he's one of "The Washington Post" reporters who helped break the Watergate scandal.

Carl, so good to see you, as always.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to be here.

TAPPER: I want to start with one of the things that I know you found most intriguing in the Michael Cohen prepared testimony, because it gets to the idea of whether or not there was a conspiracy with Russia to impact the election.

Cohen will testify today, quote, questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicion. I recalled Don Junior leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying, the meeting is all set. I remember Mr. Trump saying, OK, good, let me know.

What struck me, as I looked back and thought about that exchange between Don Junior and his father, was that Don Junior would never set up any meeting of any significance alone and certainly not without checking with his father. So I concluded that Don Junior was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary.

Now, that's not definitive evidence, but it's a suspicion.

BERNSTEIN: Yes, and it's very important because like the allegation about WikiLeaks, like the picture of the Trump Organization as basically a criminal organization, all of these questions go to the Mueller investigation. They're bricks in the Mueller investigation and bricks in the investigation by the Southern District of New York.

And what we're looking for here, if indeed Cohen is telling the truth, is the mortar between those bricks, the context. We've got to be assuming that Mueller is going to tell a full story and now we're seeing what the foundation of that story is partly through this extraordinary witness.

TAPPER: Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, as you look back, a lot of people think -- and you'll remember this well because you covered it for "The Washington Post," this is a potential John Dean moment that we're about to see. When John Dean, who once was the president lawyer in the White House, went before Congress and testified against then President Richard Nixon. And we know what happened in the weeks and months that followed.

Is this today potentially a John Dean's moment?

BERNSTEIN: The dynamic of it is potentially a John Dean moment, but there are big differences. One, Cohen was never in the White House with President Trump, whereas Dean served the president of the United States as his counsel in the White House.

Also, this guy was a flunky. He was a runner. He was a fixer. Trump always held him in relative contempt. If you look at the history of the relationship between the two men, very different with John Dean, who was really a principle in a cover up.

But what is similar is, both witnesses explained the White House cover up, the presidential cover-up, if indeed this testimony is credible. It goes to helping us understand why the president had been lying day in, day out, about all things Russia. It is very serious business for the American people, particularly to hear. It's also serious business to see what the Republicans are going to do because, as we just saw with Representative Comer, the instinct throughout these two years has been for Republicans to almost blindly support the president of the United States despite the fact, as "The Washington Post" has said, that there are 8,000 something lies. Using the word "lies" told by the president and the most important of which consistently deal with these matters that he's going to testify to today.

TAPPER: All right, Carl Bernstein, thank you so much for your expertise on this, as always.

[09:39:29] In just moment, President Trump's former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, will face off with the House Oversight Committee. His explosive testimony coming up. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're only moments away from Michael Cohen's public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, where he's expected to elaborate on those accusations. A lot of accusations we'll be hearing about with new details.

TAPPER: Our team of experts are back with us.

Let's do a whip around and find out what everybody is most interested in and looking forward to.

Evan Perez, let me start with you.

You've been covering all of these scandals, many, many scandals, from the beginning of the Trump administration. What are you going to be looking for? What do you want to hear the members of Congress ask about in the Cohen testimony?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly I think I would like to hear a little more examination of how it is that Michael Cohen feels he was being directed or encouraged to lie. That's one of the key things. I think, look, we're going to in the next -- in the coming days we're going to see the Mueller report go up to the attorney general, to Barr. He's going to prepare his own summary that he's going to provide to Congress. We don't know whether Mueller is going to look at this issue and whether or not the president had any involvement in any of Michael Cohen's crime.

[09:45:01] But certainly a little bit more examination from the questioners today would be very good to sort of understand how it is that Michael Cohen says I knew he wanted me to lie. That's important.

TAPPER: And it says in the testimony, just to preview, Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That's not how he operates.

PEREZ: Right.

TAPPER: That's more a suggestion, this is what I'm going to say. And then it says, you need to know that Mr. Trump's personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow tower negotiations before I gave it. That could be significant. What did the lawyer tell him?

PEREZ: And that's -- right. Exactly. And that's very significant because he's trying to say that the lawyers knew that I was lying and the president's lawyer helped me make this cover up lie.

And so the question is, look, I -- their -- the -- Michael Cohen, there was a joint defense agreement with the president's attorney, with the president at that time. And so there were a lot of statements that were being reviewed. So we don't know whether or not anybody paid close attention to that. I guess that's something -- we could make those lawyers witnesses if -- if they -- members of Congress want that to be.

But, again, it goes to the question of how much detail we can get to how it is that there's this history that Michael Cohen sort of knew that the president was encouraging him to lie.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting that in his written response to Mueller, the president, through his lawyers, said apparently, and we've reported this, to the best of my recollection. Is that good enough? JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it probably is.

Remember, the president is in a political context and in terms of impeachment is really the only remedy available. And they're not -- the members of Congress are not looking for the individual pardoning of words. They're just sort of making a general political judgment. So I don't think anything -- I mean certainly if it's just to the best of my recollection, you're never going to get the -- get the Congress to move on that.

However, just to -- just one issue that we're going to -- that I'm certainly going to be listening for is all of the surrounding circumstances of the -- the Stormy Daniels payment because this is the one area where there is now at least the possibility of very serious corroboration. I mean the check is the check.

Now, presumably, the Trump people will have some other explanation for what that check is. If there's another check apparently signed by Donald Trump Junior and Allen Weissenberg, what's the explanation for that? I mean the fact that this check appears to implicate the president in an already proven criminal conspiracy in the Southern District of New York where the Southern District has accepted a guilty plea from Michael Cohen about this conspiracy, that, I think, the full story of how the Stormy Daniels payment happened to be made and all the surrounding circumstances, that's something I'm going to be interested in.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But, you know, my question is, isn't that sort of baked in the cake? I mean don't people sort of assume after his plea, Michael Cohen's plea, that the president was that individual number one, that -- I mean I'm not sure. One of my questions about this whole exercises is, how much will it be revelatory and how much will it appear as a grudge match between the president and his former fixer.

TOOBIN: Well, you have to -- I mean the thing that's so striking about what you're saying is, a, it's probably right, that everybody sort of assumes this anyway. But, remember, he said the opposite. I mean the Air Force One interview we keep playing over and over again where he says, oh, I didn't know anything about these payments.

AXELROD: Yes.

TOOBIN: I mean, is it just OK, that that's complete --

AXELROD: I think that's baked into the cake too. But, you know, the question --

TOOBIN: That that was a lie.

AXELROD: You look at it through a legal lens.

TOOBIN: Yes, no, I know you're --

AXELROD: I look at it through a political lens.

TOOBIN: I -- TAPPER: And so -- one other thing that I wonder how much is baked in the cake, we -- Sara Murray just got a statement from Roger Stone.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

TAPPER: I want you to tell us what that is in a second, Gloria, but just to the context here. Roger Stone has been indicted for lying to investigators. He is now commenting about Michael Cohen, who is going to jail, partly because he lied to Congress, to defend a president who is rather untethered to facts and the truth.

BORGER: I'd say.

TAPPER: So we have a whole bunch of people that are unreliable narrators, as they might say in Hollywood. What does -- what does --

BORGER: And that's a problem for everyone, right?

TAPPER: Yes. What does Stone have to say?

BORGER: That's a problem for everyone.

So -- and Roger Stone, who had been loyal to the president, I might add, and who is looking, I think, for a pardon from the president of the United States --

TAPPER: I don't think you're going out on a limb with that.

BORGER: I'm not going out on of a limb here.

Told -- Sara Murray obtained this. And it's very simple. Mr. Cohen's statement is not true. Period.

So you -- you know, you have Michael Cohen saying that he was sitting in the president's -- not the president, then the candidate's office listening to Roger Stone on the speakerphone saying that he'd just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and Assange had told him that there was going to be some more stuff released in a couple of days. It was going to be damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign. It was about her e-mails. And that Donald Trump, then candidate, said, would that be great.

So you have two against one. And, you know, no recollection of conversations by the -- by the president. And I think they have to -- they have to continue to dig on this because if he remembers, did he tape it? I don't think so. But they'll probably ask him that question, because he did tape a lot of conversations. I don't believe he taped this one. He's probably regretting it at this point. But --

[09:50:17] TAPPER: If it happened.

BORGER: If it happened, right. So it's -- it's -- he's going to be -- he's going to be attacked on it.

PEREZ: It is important to remember, I think, this is, I think to your point, Jeffrey, this is actually the sort of -- the one blow that's been landed directly on the president as a result of all of this investigation. I mean so far Mueller hasn't really landed a blow against the president in any of the court filings, in any of the indictments. So I think, you know, so far, that's why this is -- this is -- this is why this is important.

BLITZER: We're looking at live pictures. Members have arrived already. We saw the chairman, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. He'll be gaveling. He'll make an opening statement for about a few minutes. Then the ranking Republican, the ranking member, Jim Jordan of Ohio, he's the one who never wears a sport coat or a jacket, he'll be making his opening statement. Then each -- each of the 42 members will have a bunch -- a bunch of questions. They'll only have five minutes each this first round. Let's see if there's a second round.

Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill watching all of this unfold.

What are you seeing, Manu? What are you hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, hey, Wolf, we're here actually with Gerry Connolly. He's a senior Democratic member of the House Oversight Committee. He'll be taking part in the questioning. He's also had a chance to review this 20-page opening statement.

What was the most revealing thing to you that stuck out from what you've seen so far?

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: I think both the remorse and reflection Mr. Cohen has on his own personal involvement and guilt. But also on just a pattern of deceit on the part of individual number one that is chilling and really raises, you know, the whole question of the president's involvement to a new level coming from his personal attorney.

RAJU: What are you specifically going to push him on when you get a chance to question him?

CONNOLLY: I have a line of questioning about a meeting that has not yet surfaced in the public and we'll be asking him about that meeting.

RAJU: What kind of meeting?

CONNOLLY: I'll -- you can wait for the hearing.

RAJU: Is this something that you're aware that the president had or that Michael Cohen had?

CONNOLLY: Yes. Yes. Both.

RAJU: It has not surfaced publicly yet?

CONNOLLY: Correct.

RAJU: Do you think that Michael Cohen has knowledge of this meeting?

CONNOLLY: He attended the meeting. I know he has knowledge of it. RAJU: And you have -- you have concerns about Russia not being part of these discussions or this questioning. Do you think that now that you've seen the testimony that the Russia investigation is going to be part of the hearing going forward?

CONNOLLY: We just had a meeting about that and Russia will now be fair game.

RAJU: So Russia is now fair game?

CONNOLLY: Given the fact that the witness has talked about the Russian relationship, both with respect to the tower in Moscow throughout the 2016 campaign and the Julian Assange role in WikiLeaks document dumps that involved the Russians, Russia is now fair game.

RAJU: Thank you, congressman.

A bit of news there, Russia, Wolf and Jake, are now -- is now going to now part of this investigation, this hearing. This was not expected heading into today. But in light of that testimony, this is going to be a part of the questioning -- a significant part of the questioning going forward, according to the congressman, what they just head discussed in a closed door meeting.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Originally -- originally. Manu, you're absolutely right. And thank Congressman Connolly for that news.

The Russia part was supposed to be discussed behind closed doors tomorrow before the House Intelligence Committee, but that has now all changed.

Carl, you wanted to weigh in.

BERNSTEIN: I want to make one point that's very telling, and that is the Trump Tower construction project in Moscow. That is hugely important. It's a -- it's really the sleeper question, I think, of this whole hearing, because it goes to the question of the role of the Trump Organization throughout Trump's business activities leading into the campaign when he used the campaign for personal purposes of making money, but especially he allegedly directed Cohen to lie about the Trump Tower campaign and the Trump Tower construction and was it still in play. And that, in fact, is what Cohen is accused of having perjured himself for. So it becomes a central question both of, quote, collusion perhaps, of business interests of the Trump family over that of the United States.

BLITZER: Jennifer, go ahead.

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And that gets to another point, which is, one of the things on the list from Chairman Cummings was conflicts of interest. We haven't seen anything really about that in Michael Cohen's opening statement. And, to me, prosecutors have got the criminal stuff, honestly. They know more about it than we've heard. They know more than we'll know later today. But what we don't know, what really the House should be doing here, is

delving into these conflicts of interest. What was the Trump Organization doing in Saudi Arabia, in Russia, in Turkey, in the places where we've seen administration action that may be not because of the interests of the United States but rather because of Trump Organization business interests. That's what I'd like to see them talk about.

[09:55:17] BORGER: Well, and behind all of this I think the overlay is the way -- the way Michael Cohen described the campaign, and quoting Trump, saying it was an infomercial for his business, detailing, he says, a half a dozen times before the Iowa caucuses in January 2016 and the end of June when the president would ask me, how is it going in Russia, meaning, the Trump Tower Moscow project, when he was, of course, telling the American public and journalists like me -- and I will tell you, Michael Cohen is saying the same thing, by the way -- that there was no -- there were no business interests in Russia.

AXELROD: So here's an interesting element of this. If the -- if everybody's hunting down whether there was collusion in order to help Trump win the election and Cohen is saying he never really expected to win the election, he really wanted this business in Moscow and he expected to lose, you have stories that are sort of weirdly in conflict.

BORGER: Right.

PEREZ: Yes.

AXELROD: Was Trump motivated by his pecuniary interests or was he motivated to try and get himself elected?

BORGER: Or both. Or both.

PEREZ: And, by the way, we've seen this repeatedly, just in the last few days, in the Paul Manafort court filings. Paul Manafort describes it, yes, I mean, I committed bank fraud, yes, I may have lied on various forms to various people, but I was doing it essentially to paper over my financial problems until the end of the campaign. And it -- but the idea being that this is a -- this is repeatedly seen that Trump -- everybody around him did not expect him necessarily to win.

BORGER: No.

PEREZ: And this is about making business after the election. And so it does -- you're right, it does kind of create -- create a little bit of a conflict. It will be interesting to see how the special counsel addresses that which goes to the heart of this investigation that's, you know, been hanging over the president for two years.

TAPPER: If the motivation was not conspiracy and treason but the motivation was just unvarnished greed, whether it's Paul Manafort or anybody affiliated with the Trump Organization --

PEREZ: Right.

TAPPER: Does that change what the special counsel will write in the report?

PEREZ: I think it -- they have to address that. I think it -- because, again, this is this central question of what they were appointed to investigate. And if -- if it holds up -- essentially, this was the FBI's theory going into this investigation. Back in 2016, we kept hearing from people who were connected to the investigation is that, you know, look -- it looks like what's going on is there's a bunch of hangers-on, people who are trying to grift, people who were trying to make money from this campaign --

BLITZER: You know, I just want to interrupt for a moment, that's Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida. He's not a member of this committee, but he's walking into the hearing room. Let's see if he gets asked a question. He's the one who last night tweeted that pretty awful tweet threatening -- clearly threatening Michael Cohen.

TAPPER: Alluding to unproven allegations about his private life. It was interpreted as a Republican congressman very loyal to the president threatening, intimidating a witness. He first said that that's not what he was doing. He was just engaging in the marketplace of ideas. And then ultimately he deleted the tweet and apologized.

Sorry. Go ahead.

BORGER: That's my favorite quote of the day, by the way.

TAPPER: Marketplace of ideas?

BORGER: It was just the marketplace of -- of ideas.

TAPPER: A lofty -- quite a lofty description of that tweet.

BORGER: Yes. Absolutely was.

TAPPER: Go -- I'm sorry, Evan, go ahead.

PEREZ: Well, no. You know, I think the -- if you listen to what people suspected was happening behind the scenes, if, again, if that's borne out by this investigation, I think it does create a conundrum for a lot of people who were expecting to prove that there was this collusion aspect that, again, they were trying -- that the Russians and the Trump campaign were essentially conspiring to steal an election and defraud the American people.

TOOBIN: Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

BORGER: Exactly.

TOOBIN: I mean it is --

BERNSTEIN: Particularly after he's the nominee.

TOOBIN: Right. Right. I mean it is a kind of heads I win, tails you lose. If I win, I get to be president of the United States. If I lose, I get to be even richer than I am now.

PEREZ: Right. Right.

TOOBIN: So -- so the idea that there would -- that he was working with Russian interests to win the election is not contradictory with the idea that he was trying to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin so he would -- he would approve Trump Tower Moscow.

I -- you know, I -- far be it for me to know exactly what was going on in Donald Trump's head, but there's certainly not --

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: Not contradictory (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: But I think that explains why a lot of this has been farmed out to the Southern District.

BLITZER: Oh, there he is.

TAPPER: Just to interrupt, there's Michael Cohen, that is the witness, the man going to prison in May, the president's former fixer and longtime loyal confidante and attorney who, obviously, this is a nerve-racking day for him, for his family. He, as I said, is going to prison for lying under oath to Congress, among other crimes in May.

BLITZER: He'll be sworn in under oath.

There's Elijah Cummings, the chairman of this committee.

[09:59:56] And it does underscore, Jake, that this hearing right now is taking place in part because the Democrats won in November. They're the majority in the House of Representatives. They can decide what to do.

END