Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Remarks on Cohen Testimony; Trump Fails to Secure Deal With Kim Jong-un. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 28, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, don't believe Michael Cohen, but do believe Kim Jong-un. OK, got it.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breakdown. President Trump on his way back from Vietnam, after talks with Kim Jong-un collapse, and after the president shocks the world by accepting a brutal dictator's word on the death of an American.

And after the president lands, the turbulence will recommence -- his former lawyer back on Capitol Hill today, after alleging ruthless tactics and schemes that made the man who won the White House.

Plus, another rising Democratic star on the verge of joining the race to face Trump. Beto O'Rourke says he's made up his mind about a 2020 bid. CNN caught up with him.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're following three major stories unfolding today, all of them, frankly, bad news for President Trump.

President Trump experiencing major challenges abroad, as his presidency is under siege at home. Hours after the president walked out of his much-hyped second summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, today, his former fixer Michael Cohen is testifying yet again on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday, Cohen delivered a brutal public testimony, calling the president of the United States a racist and a con man who directed many of the crimes Cohen committed. Cohen, of course, has credibility issues and, in fact, is going to prison in part for previously having lied to Congress.

That said, Cohen provided House Democrats with a long list of potential crimes and schemes to investigate and future witnesses to grill. The president has, of course, been more focused recently on the nuclear threat posed by North Korea the last few days.

And he now says he's involved in trying to pull to other countries with nukes back from the brink, India and Pakistan.

We are following all three of these critically important stories from Capitol Hill to India to Vietnam.

President Trump is currently on his way back from Hanoi, after that abrupt early end to his high-stakes summit with Kim Jong-un. In a press conference that had to be moved up after the talks collapsed, the president defended that decision.

But he did not get out of town without saying something that even many Republicans vocally said they found reprehensible, President Trump telling the world he does not hold Kim Jong-un responsible for the torture and ultimate death of an American college student, Otto Warmbier, after Kim, a serial human rights abuser and absolute ruler, denied knowing about Warmbier's mistreatment.

Warmbier, who was arrested for a petty crime, died just days after being released from a North Korean prison. He entered North Korea as any other healthy young college student. He was returned to the U.S. in a coma.

President Trump said this today about the man ultimately responsible for Warmbier's death.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He felt badly about it. I did speak to him. He felt very badly. But he knew the case very well, but he knew it later.

He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: "I will take him at his word," the president says, just like he took the word of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who was denying involvement in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and just like he took the word of Vladimir Putin when he denied interfering in the U.S. election.

The president yet again taking the word of brutal dictators regarding crimes against their victims, including Americans.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins starts off our coverage today with more from Hanoi, Vietnam.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: I'm never afraid to walk from a deal.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): And that's exactly what President Trump did today, leaving Vietnam without a deal and on an empty stomach after talks with the North Korean dictator fell apart.

The president and Kim Jong-un canceling lunch and a joint signing ceremony after reaching a standoff during their second nuclear summit. TRUMP: Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety.

And we couldn't do that. They were willing to de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted. But we couldn't give up all of the sanctions for that.

COLLINS: The North Korean demand a deal-breaker for Trump, but a sigh of relief for aides who feared he'd make major concessions.

TRUMP: I could've 100 percent signed something today. We actually had papers ready to be signed, but it just wasn't appropriate. I want to do it right. I'd much rather do it right than do it fast.

COLLINS: As of now, the president says there's no third summit on the horizon.

TRUMP: I mean, it might be soon. It might not be for a long time. I can't tell you.

COLLINS: And despite talks falling apart, Trump speaking highly of Kim to reporters before leaving Hanoi.

TRUMP: This wasn't a walk away, like you get up and walk out. No, this was very friendly. We shook hands. You know, there's a warmth that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will.

COLLINS: But Kim leads one of the most repressive regimes on the planet, one that's widely blamed for the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was detained in North Korea and sent home in a coma, only to die days later.

[16:05:03]

TRUMP: He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.

COLLINS: Trump siding with the North Korean dictator while angering allies at home.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: We know what happened to Otto. We know what this country has done.

COLLINS: Though the president's critics sounded hopeful about the outcome of his summit.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: A deal that fell short of complete, verifiable denuclearization would have only made North Korea stronger and the world less safe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, after the president left Vietnam today, the North Korean foreign minister came out with a statement disputing the president's account of why those talks broke down, saying that they requested some of the sanctions be lifted, but not all of them, like the president said. When the president stopped to refuel in Alaska, Sarah Sanders was asked about those comments. She said the president was aware of them, but had nothing further to add for right now -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins in Hanoi, thank you so much.

Let's start with our experts.

David, is there anything you could call a success coming out of the summit?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, again, I think success is continuing to talk. There hasn't been a missile launch from the North Korean state in over 400 days.

During the Obama administration, there was a missile launch about every 24 days. So, look, as long as they continue to talk, I think it's a huge success. I do think...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: A huge success? Really?

URBAN: Yes, I do. I do.

Listen, I think that as long as two people are talking, two nations are talking about denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, it's a big success. Every president up until this president had the opportunity to kick the can down the road, whether it was President Bush 41, President Clinton, 43, Obama.

They all thought they had the luxury of time. These guys will never have a missile system capable of delivering a missile to the United States. They're not going to have a nuclear -- Karen, don't shake your head. That's exactly what happened.

So, everyone kicked the can down the road thinking they had time. We don't have time anymore. We need to talk.

TAPPER: Karen?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So that was good spin. You did a good job. You did your people well.

Look, I think one of the biggest signs of what a failure this was, was the fact that the president came out and said, I believe Kim that he didn't know anything about what happened to Otto Warmbier, because it's that...

TAPPER: Otto Warmbier.

FINNEY: Warmbier. Sorry.

That sent a signal, I think, that he is trying to preserve the relationship with Kim, because he knows it was a failure. It also shows this is what happens when -- I get we all think that -- you guys like to say that this president, he's not traditional, he does things his own way.

Well, having worked for a president, President Clinton, I can tell you there's a lot of work that goes into these trips beforehand, so you don't have this kind of embarrassment, where a luncheon menu has been set out and people expect that there's going to be a signing ceremony, and, oops, it doesn't happen because you did not do the work and properly understand the sequencing and properly understand your adversary and what he needed to be able to go home with.

URBAN: That's mischaracterization. That's your interpretation.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: Right. And you got to say yours and I got to say mine. So, now you be quiet.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, I mean, there are critics who say that every time President Trump does this, he's elevating Kim Jong-un on the world stage.

And this is 0-2.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

TAPPER: I mean, yes, the missile testing stopped, and the nuclear testing stopped, although some say they don't need to do any more nuclear testing. They already know that they have a working nuke.

But do you think this was a mistake, ultimately?

HAM: Yes, with North Korea specifically, I'm OK with doing something different, even weird, him being an unconventional actor, and maybe that's throwing everything off and sort of messing with the system and sort of popping something loose here.

But as Karen's noting, that should come with pre-negotiations, with an idea of what the guy is coming to the table with, what he will accept and what he will not. And then Trump, because he is this totally unorthodox actor, I do not always trust him to have a plan when he's in the room or to know what sort of the moral line is for America, because he gets very transactional about these things.

And I think the tell -- like if you're going to confer all this importance on North Korea and legitimacy, then you got to get something out of it. And the tell for me that he went in there not ready to get something out of it and not with the right perspective is the Otto Warmbier stuff.

It's horrendous to say that he had nothing to do with this, that he didn't know about, it was just like an accident. And, by the way, in a perfectly Trumpian moment, it undercuts one of his actual accomplishments, although somber. It's important to bring Americans home. And he did that with Otto Warmbier.

And now he's saying, they're not to blame. That worries me deeply.

TAPPER: Kirsten, take a listen to how Rick Santorum, former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, reacted to that sound bite, to the comment from President Trump on how he took Kim Jong-un's word for it when it came to Otto Warmbier, he didn't know that he was being mistreated.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, CNN COMMENTATOR: This is reprehensible, what he just did.

I mean, he gave cover, as you said, to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier. And, again, I don't understand why the president does this. I am disappointed, to say the least.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(CROSSTALK)

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, yes, that's exactly right.

I think the other thing that Trump doesn't understand is that what was done to that poor college student was also -- was meant to be kind of a middle finger to Trump, right?

[16:10:05]

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: For the United States in general, not...

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: Well, he's the president of the United States.

TAPPER: OK.

POWERS: It is literally saying to him, I'm going to do this, there's nothing that you can do about it, and I have this little respect for you and your country, that I will do this with no concern whatsoever about any ramifications.

I mean, you do not do something like that to an American citizen and then -- unless you believe that you're not going to be held accountable. And I think most Americans know that. Most Americans know that the reason they feel pretty safe traveling is because they can rely on their government to protect them and at a minimum punish people who do these kinds of reprehensible things to Americans.

TAPPER: David, why say, I take Kim Jong-un at his word, the same way he took Mohammed bin Salman at his word, the same way he took Vladimir Putin at his word?

Why not just say, my heart goes out to the Warmbier family, it's a horrible tragedy, and then just like not even get into absolving Kim Jong-un for this for tragedy -- for this brutality?

URBAN: Yes.

Look, you're not going to hear me disagree with Senator Santorum's remarks earlier today. Look, I think that the notion that somehow something goes on in the hermit kingdom without Kim Jong-un understanding it or sanctioning doesn't pass a straight face test.

I do think -- I mean, this may be the scenario. I don't know if this happened. They grab the kid, they rough him up, he gets brain damage.

POWERS: What?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: No, I don't know. I'm saying this may have been the scenario, where President Kim said, I didn't know he was going to be killed.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: That's ridiculous.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Listen, I'm just saying that have been the scenario.

I think that it's reprehensible. I think the president should have stood up there and said, listen, this is a terrible thing, we're going to hold them accountable, we can't let this happen. He shouldn't have said what he said. It's clear -- I don't think anybody staying anywhere in America is saying, oh, that was OK to say.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: ... and North Korea that they don't...

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: It's impossible. Just it's impossible that they don't know everything that is happening.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Separating the misstatements, right, the president's gaffe there, saying that, which he shouldn't have made, right, complete misstatement, from the point about not having done any spadework, look, I think that Secretary Pompeo, Steve Biegun, the special envoy to North Korea, lots of folks have been doing lots of spadework since the last meeting on this.

And the notion that somehow the president just jetted over and did a drop-by is little bit... (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: That's true.

But just -- sources tell CNN that Trump's aides warned him in the days and even the hours leading up to the talks that North Korean negotiations weren't -- that the negotiators were not budging from their demands that they have sanction relief before they do anything.

But the president, our reporting says, thought he could go in the room, and with the force of his personality, change the equation. and it didn't work.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Yes, and it didn't work. And so how are we any worse off for it at this point, right?

I think the president -- you keep pushing. If anything, it shows that we're not -- the president is not -- everyone was worried, he's going to take a bad deal, he's going to come back with a bad deal.

The president stood up and walked away.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: And, in fairness, that is the one thing that he did right. He walked away from a bad deal.

FINNEY: But it suggests that it must have been really bad for him to walk away, because he was in such need of a win, given how they built this up and again created all this hype.

There is no way that the North Koreans haven't been watching what's been going on in the United States over the last week and knew he was coming to this summit in a very weakened condition, and probably figured, we don't need to give him what he needs.

And, by the way, Kim gets to go back to his country and say, I stood up to the Americans. They're not going to take us for fools. And here comes our president. Yes, he walked away. But, again, we don't now know -- this is what the experts are saying -- what is the actual status of our relationship with North Korea, and we can't even verify that they have done the things that they said they did.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: It's no worse off than it was the day before President Trump...

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: You don't know that.

(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: I do want to say, Nikki Haley tweeted: "Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. Our hearts are with the Warmbier family."

And that is true for all of us at the table here. Our hearts are all with the Warmbier family today.

And I will just leave it at that.

He name-dropped President Trump's inner circle and his kids. And now House Oversight is saying, all of you are going to hear from us -- the legal hazards ahead for the president and his family, thanks to Michael Cohen.

The other perhaps more immediate and dangerous nuclear threat, India and Pakistan on the brink. Can President Trump help pull them back?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:26] TAPPER: Politics lead now -- Michael Cohen now back before Congress today after that explosive public testimony that gave investigators the potential gold mine of leads to explore about his former boss, President Trump.

Cohen told lawmakers that then candidate Trump committed crimes. He outlined how he brought -- those crimes, he brought receipts, he told lawmakers where to go to get more, who else to interview.

Of course, Cohen is a proven liar. He's going to prison in part because he previously lied to Congress who made even some questionable claims while telling his version of the truth yesterday.

As CNN's Jessica Schneider reports, Cohen's testimony could be full of new territory for investigators.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Michael Cohen, capping off three days on Capitol Hill. Today, behind closed doors. His sit-down inside a secure facility with the House Intelligence Committee comes after an explosive open session Wednesday, with House Oversight.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: He is a conman and he is a cheat.

SCHNEIDER: House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN his committee would focus on finding out more about the president's potential criminal conduct. Schiff tweeting: We'll examine in-depth many of those topics, including Trump Tower Moscow, Roger Stone WikiLeaks and any White House role in Cohen's false statements to Congress.

The committee wants to examine Cohen's claim that Donald Trump Jr. told his father about the meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower before it happened in June 2016, as well as Cohen's claim that Roger Stone informed the president that WikiLeaks was about to expose e- mails from the Clinton campaign and the DNC.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said there's a lot more investigating to be done across Congress.

[16:20:03] REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD), HOUSE OVERSIGHT CHAIRMAN: What we did yesterday was we gather a lot of information that I think will be -- we may not look into it in our committee but one of the five or six committees will.

SCHNEIDER: One focus for Cummings, hush money payments Cohen says he made to Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Trump years before. Cohen showed lawmakers two reimbursement checks, one he said was signed by the president and the other, he said, was signed by both Allen Weisselberg and Donald Trump Jr.

REP. RO KHANNA (D), CALIFORNIA: Do you know if this criminal financial scheme that the president and Allen Weisselberg and Donald Trump Jr. Is being investigated by the southern district of New York?

COHEN: I'd rather not discuss that question because it could be part of an investigation that's currently ongoing.

SCHNEIDER: Allen Weisselberg is the Trump Organization's CFO and he has provided testimony to federal prosecutors in Manhattan in exchange for limited immunity. Chairman Cummings says he may call both men in for questioning before House Oversight, and Cohen opened the door to financial and tax fraud investigations, handing over the 2011 and 2013 financial statements Trump allegedly gave Deutsche Bank as a basis of a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills. Cohen suggested Trump inflated his worth for this loan as well as on other occasions when it suited his interest.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK: Did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?

COHEN: Yes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Cohen also suggested that prosecutors in New York are looking at other potential criminal conduct by the president beyond those hush money payments. Of course, we've already reported that SDNY is looking into the Trump inaugural committee, as well as executives at the Trump Organization.

And, Jake, of course, with House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings saying that he expects widespread investigations over several committees, it appears that these three days of testimony from Michael Cohen may just be the tip of the iceberg -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

Two legal minds with us, legal reporter Laura Jarrett, legal analyst Laura Coates.

Laura, let me -- Laura Coates, let me start with you. If you take Cohen at his word -- that's a big if. That's a big if. But if you do, he gave lawmakers a lot to examine. One day removed now.

Here are just a few of the potential crimes that he's alleging the president committed: perjury, bank fraud, insurance fraud, election fraud, witness tampering, making false statements and there are a lot more.

What do you think is most potentially legally problematic for President Trump?

LAURA COATES, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: First of all, all of those are problematic. But the one that really was very problematic to me was the idea of the campaign finance violations. The reason for that is because you already have a U.S. attorney's office in New York who has said that this person, Donald Trump, is essentially an unindicted co-conspirator. They've already signed on past investigations.

It's now an actual offense. Cohen has been convicted to it. It was a felony related to it. We know from Cohen's testimony that he identified the person as individual one is President Donald Trump.

At first, we thought it was just Donald Trump the citizen, perhaps even the candidate. But now you know there was the president as well. Why that's important is because this whole notion of impeachment, the whole notion of a criminal offense, impeachment is about high crimes and misdemeanors. It's not expressly said what they mean by that. There is some nebulous aspect of it, but a felony certainly fits into the category of that.

So, you're learning more about why it's problematic on the criminal front, SDNY, who doesn't have the same regulation of not indicting a sitting president and you also have now the idea of political hard and rock place or a hard place and a rock for the president. In both fronts, campaign finance may not sound a big deal to people, but it's a felony. And as somebody has already said, Trump is one of them.

TAPPER: He talked about the payments and also made them as president in the Oval Office.

COATES: Yes.

TAPPER: Laura Jarrett, today, Republican Congressman Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on that committee, Mark Meadows, very close allies, both of them, to President Trump, asked the Justice Department to investigate Cohen for possible perjury, specifically for lying, I believe this is the case they're making, lying about he didn't want a job in the Trump White House when he did. There's a ton of evidence, including a comment he made to Chris Cuomo on his show.

Could this actually -- what's the legal ramification? He's already going to jail for lying to Congress.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. So, of course, the Justice department doesn't need a referral from two congressmen, Meadows and Jordan, in order to open up an investigation. I think it's safe to say they were probably paying very close attention to every word that came out of Michael Cohen's mouth, making sure that only he didn't run afoul to open investigations, but that it didn't run in contradiction to anything that he had told them behind closed doors.

Now, obviously, Michael Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, said in a statement to us today that this is just pure partisanship, he testified truthfully. But as you mentioned, I think it really raised a lot of questions about his credibility yesterday when he did say he didn't want a job in the White House, when the Southern District of New York said they have text messages showing he thought he was going to get a job in the White House.

[16:25:02] Now, Meadows and Jordan are also raising this question about whether he said he had never committed bank fraud. Well, he didn't plead guilty to bank fraud. He pled guilty to providing a false statement to a financial institution. So, there's some wiggle room on some of these. But on the not wanting the job in the White House, I think that's tricky one for him.

TAPPER: Laura Coates, some of the most intriguing questions to Cohen came from freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Here she is digging into potential bank fraud allegations. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OCASIO-CORTEZ: To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?

COHEN: Yes.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Who else knows that the president did this?

COHEN: Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: And where will the committee find more information on this? Do you think we need to review his financial statements and his tax returns in order to compare them?

COHEN: Yes, and you would find it at the Trump Org.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And where could this lead investigators?

COATES: Well, it's not a rabbit hole. Now, you have a witness list. He just named all the people in response to who would know about this information and who do we need to see and what do we need to see?

This is really, really keen of her to do so, because what she did is not just a hypothetical, theatrical, or simply try to use it to grandstand. She elicited testimony, which is what you're supposed to do at these hearings --

TAPPER: Yes.

COATES: -- to figure out where you're supposed to go next. Their function in the oversight is actually to have a legislative agenda and figure out where to go next. He just named people. You can imagine every single one of them saying, OK, here we go.

Only one of them so far, I can think about, Allen Weisselberg, he had limited immunity with respect to the grand jury testimony. Now, he has been exposed in front of Congress. Well, you may be able to play that immunity about it and say, what's there to lose, you already had immunity in that category and now, you're a part of witnesses and roadmap. Very smart of her to do.

TAPPER: Yes, a lesson from the freshman to the elders, fewer speeches please, more information eliciting testimony. Appreciate it. Thanks, Laura. Thank you, Laura.

COATES: Thank you.

TAPPER: He didn't run in 2016 for personal reasons. But is it already too late for Joe Biden to run in 2020? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)