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Trump on Cohen's Testimony; Interview with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ); O'Rourke To Make Announcement. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 28, 2019 - 09:30   ET



[09:30:34] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it is happening again today. Day three in a row of Cohen testimony now underway on The Hill.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And it was quite an ugly day of partisan bickering in front of the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. Were there any political winners here really?

With us, national political correspondent for "The New York Times," Alex Burns, and White House reporter for "The Washington Post," Toluse Olorunnipa.

Good morning to you both.

Let's just take a moment and listen to the president weighing in on this and something he actually liked from Michael Cohen.

Here he was.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He lied a lot, but it was very interesting because he didn't lie about one thing. He said, no collusion with the Russian hoax. And I said, I wonder why he didn't just lie about that, too, like he did about everything else.


HARLOW: So, Toluse, he's a liar when he is and when he's not he's telling the truth?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, the president does seem obsessed with the Russia answer that Michael Cohen gave, even though so many of the other answers that Michael Cohen gave directly implicated the president in a number of different criminal acts, even though Michael Cohen said that he can't say for sure that President Trump was colluding with the Russians during the campaign. He said that he believed that President Trump would have done anything to win and he dropped some circumstantial evidence that may have implicated the president in potential crimes during the campaign.

So even though President Trump seemed to be happy with what Michael Cohen said about Russia, he's not going to be happy with the months of investigation the Democrats are going to be able to pursue because of what Michael Cohen said, not only about the president's taxes, but his campaign finance violation allegations, as well as, you know, self- dealing with his charity, bank fraud, tax fraud. There are a number of different avenues of investigation the Democrats are going to be able to pull on.

So even if there's no collusion allegation, the other allegations are enough to give the president a world of hurt for the next several months.

SCIUTTO: Alex Burns, I think folks at home, after days like this, will want to know the basic answer to the question, what's different now? What has changed? And prior to Cohen's testimony, Democrats had told me in private that they would need a significant revelation to make the possibility of impeachment credible. But you did hear some Democrats, Jackie Speier among them, say there's a growing evidence that an impeachment pleading can be made. I wonder, in your conversations with Democratic lawmakers, did Wednesday move the dial for them?

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I don't know, Jim, that it revealed facts on its own that sort of shocked them into thinking that an impeachment fight is the right choice right now. I do think that talking to Democrats and, frankly, some Republicans as well, who, you know, are certainly not enthusiastic about impeaching the president, it's becoming easier for them just to, on a mental level, and even an emotional level, imagine the set of circumstances that would actually lead them to pursue impeachment.

What I mean is that, you know, that illusion by Michael Cohen to ongoing investigations by the Southern District of New York, some of the questions that he declined to answer, the specificity with which he described the role that other people who could be called to testify played in alleged criminal activity, you do start to see a somewhat clearer picture of events that could lead to an impeachment claim.

I do think that it's important to note that the Democrats, who are sort of most directly involved in the question of impeachment, are still steering well clear of that. But even the party leaders who truly do not want that fight now, or anytime soon, will privately acknowledge that there are events that could transpire either from the Mueller investigation or the Southern District of New York, or their own investigation that would make it very, very hard to tell the Democratic base and the Democratic rank and file in the House, no, we're not going to do that, period.

HARLOW: Toluse, let me ask you about the Republicans here, because a veteran of both Bush White Houses, Peter Wehner wrote -- writes this morning in "The Times," quote, Republicans on the committee tried to destroy the credibility of Cohen's testimony, not because they believe that his testimony is false, he writes, but because they fear it's true.

What do you think of that and did they succeed in destroying the credibility of Michael Cohen?

OLORUNNIPA: That -- they seem laser focused on targeting Michael Cohen, calling him a liar, saying that he lied about a number of things in the past, that he had lied to Congress, and that really seemed to be their focus. But because Michael Cohen provided evidence and pointed to other potential witnesses, that strategy may -- might not hold up in the face of that evidence. And if the Democrats decide to bring other witnesses, including Mr. Weisselberg, up to Congress, they will -- the Republicans won't be able to tarnish him as a convicted felon or as a liar. This is someone who has been at President Trump's side for decades and is not charged with any specific crimes.

[09:35:29] So that strategy may only take them so far. And I think they used it as much as they could yesterday. There were no questions really defending President Trump on the substance of the various allegations. They were really just trying to tear Michael Cohen down. But the fact that Michael Cohen provided evidence and provided names of other people who might be able to speak on some of his allegations makes it difficult to continue that strategy as Republicans try to tarnish his credibility. They may not be able to do the same for the other people involved.

SCIUTTO: One of those names, Alex Burns, is Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer. Cohen referenced his knowledge, his role in alleged wrongdoing here. You have to imagine that he will be called to The Hill and you will have more public testimony. The remarkable thing about this is, this is testimony that, to this point, only the special counsel has heard and now might be heard in public.

BURNS: That's right. And that would, I think, Jim, be pretty substantially different from some of what we heard from Michael Cohen yesterday in that, you know, it was very vivid and powerful in many respects to hear the words directly from Michael Cohen's mouth in front of a House committee like that. I don't know that there are all that many Americans who are going to be stunned at some of the things that he said at this point.

The American people have never heard from Allen Weisselberg. The American people have never heard from, you know, virtually anybody else involved in the Trump Organization who has not been sort of explicitly put forward by the president and his allies at some point or another. So to the extent that Democrats in the House decided they are going to take some of these figures in the president's world or witnesses in the various very quiet investigations and really make them public figures and put their words on the record for the American people to see for themselves, I think that could be more politically consequential maybe than what we saw yesterday.

SCIUTTO: Alex Burns, Toluse Olorunnipa, from Hanoi, thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right, so, ahead for us, the art of no deal. The president walks away from the North Korea talks. What's next?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [09:42:00] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

President Trump is on his way back to Washington after his second summit with Kim Jong-un abruptly ended hours ago with no deal. An official telling us that Trump was certain he could get an agreement, even though he was warned repeatedly in advance that Kim Jong-un would not budge on his demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions on North Korea immediately.

Let's discuss now with the Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Also on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for taking the time this morning.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Good to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So for a second time in a number of months the president travels to the other side of the world to meet face-to-face with the North Korean leader and he leaves without discernable progress on denuclearization.

Were these talks, in your view, a failure?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, what we saw in Hanoi was amateur hour with nuclear weapons at stake and the limits of reality TV diplomacy. I had said well before the second summit that, in fact, the work of discipline, strategic preparation and diplomacy, was critical if we were going to ultimately achieve any success here. And, unfortunately, that proved to be true. There was a lack of the strategic building towards understanding what the absolute North Korea position would be and whether or not it was possible to find ways to move that.

And what I worry about is that the president, by giving Kim Jong-un the international -- not only recognition but almost acceptance from going from pariah to an accepted international leader has squandered the leverage that we have. The question is, is China going to walk with us as well, or are they going to continue down the path that China and Russia and others have done, which is begin to have less of sanctions enforcement and engage North Korea economically without us having achieved virtually anything.

SCIUTTO: Now, there was concern, even from within the administration, that the president might give up too much here searching perhaps for a headline -- for a win or a headline to distract from the Cohen testimony. He did not. He held the line.

Do you give him credit for holding the line in effect and demanding more from Kim?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, without a full briefing, I'm not sure whether that was the best choice. But I do give him credit in this respect. If you're not going to get a good deal, then you do need to walk away. The problem is, is that you don't set yourself up for that proposition as the president has, give Kim Jong-un international recognition, weaken the international cooperation we have had for sanctions against North Korea, get China, that needs to be a critical player with us, to achieve any success here, not engage our allies sufficiently that are critical in the region. Japan and South Korea by way of example.

[09:45:12] So, yes, it's better not to go ahead and enter into a bad deal. But you don't put yourself in this position in the first place. And I think that's one of the critical short fallings.

And the other recognition we have to have is that Americans are less safe today than when the president started because, you know, Kim Jong-un continues to enrich material. He already tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. This has all happened under the president's watch.

SCIUTTO: And it was interesting, we heard the president deny U.S. intelligence assessments to that effect at the press conference.

But the most jaw-dropping moment was the president taking Kim Jong- un's word for not knowing about the horrendous treatment of Otto Warmbier, who left the country -- after being held hostage -- left brain dead and later died. This morning Senator Rick Santorum, former Republican senator, of course, had very harsh words for the president.

Have a listen and I want to get your reaction.


RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The fact that he walked away is, to me, a wonderful moment in his presidency. But this -- this is reprehensible that what he just did. I mean he -- he gave cover, as you said, to -- 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 that he did it.


SCIUTTO: What damage does that do for a U.S. president to take a position like that?

MENENDEZ: Enormous damage. You know, the whole question of human rights in North Korea has not even been raised. And it is a problem for Kim as he seeks international recognition, we should be raising that as well, the thousands that are in concentration camps and jails, those who have been killed, those who have had to flee.

And Otto Warmbier, a United States citizen, to say that he believes Kim Jong-un, the president has a propensity for this. He believes Putin as it relates to some of the things that Putin says. He believes, you know, Kim Jong-un. He seems to find warmth with authoritarian dictatorships and believes them and their word when they have records of violating international law and human rights than to believe our own intelligence community.

SCIUTTO: Senator Bob Menendez, thanks very much.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Jim.

HARLOW: Really important. All right, will he run or is he not going to run? Former Texas

Congressman Beto O'Rourke says he has decided.


[09:52:14] HARLOW: All right, former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke says he has made -- he and his wife have made a decision about his political future. One source tells us at CNN, he's ruled out running for the Senate in 2020. But, come on, that's not what you were all waiting for. You all want to know if he's going to run for the White House. Well, he says an announcement is coming soon.

My colleague, Leyla Santiago, is covering this non campaign campaign from Texas.

Not yet a campaign.

And you spoke to the former congressman last night. What did he tell you?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, we received the statement that he put out in which he says, Amy and I have made a decision. And so I wanted to talk to him to get more details on what will an announcement look like? When will it happen? And get more details as to what it could be.

I specifically asked him, are you running to become the next U.S. president? Listen to what he had to say.


REP. BETO O'ROURKE (D), TEXAS: I'm going to be making an announcement soon. I'm going to be making the same announcement to everyone at the same time. And that's -- that's all --

QUESTION: Are you running for president?

O'ROURKE: That's all I can say at this time.

QUESTION: Are you running for president?

O'ROURKE: That's all I'm going to say.

QUESTION: OK. When will you make that announcement?



SANTIAGO: Soon. That's all we got. Soon. He really won't go into much detail.

But let's back up a little bit. You know, this comes after an interview with Oprah in which he said his deadline was by the end of the month. Check your calendar, that's today. So he did make a decision by the deadline that he set, but we're all just waiting to hear what that is.

We have learned that he's not running -- or he doesn't plan to run against Senator Cornyn, something that was also in the talks. But -- but now we need the next one, right?

HARLOW: Right.

SANTIAGO: And what will he run for?

HARLOW: Yes. Good job on those questions, Leyla. You weren't going to let him get away -- get away without at least saying something.

What I find so interesting is like, do you really make an announcement that you're not going to do something? I mean usually you make an announcement that you're going to do something. How tight lipped is everyone on team Beto being?

SANTIAGO: Right. And he has said that he wants to do something to make a difference in the future for this country. He certainly has been all smiles in the last 24 hours, but it's hard to find out exactly what he will do next because it is a very, very tight circle. He really has just a few people in that inner circle that are advising him.

In fact, and this will -- this will probably paint the picture for you, Poppy. Yesterday, after he made that statement, I called his sister to see if she had any more information and she found out through us. So even his family is still wondering what will come next from the former congressman.

[09:55:02] HARLOW: Yes. Because sometimes family talks, you know, Leyla.


HARLOW: So, I guess he really wants to tell everyone at the same time.

Thank you very much, Leyla Santiago.

SANTIAGO: That's what he says.

HARLOW: There you go. Live for us in El Paso, Texas.

Also, really significant thing happened yesterday. Of course there was a lot else going on, so it didn't make all the headlines. But the House passed the most significant gun control legislation that we have seen in more than two decades. Yesterday lawmakers in the House, with bipartisan support, passed a bill that would expand background checks to cover virtually all firearm sales. However, it is not expected, at this point, it seems rather unlikely it will get the 60 votes needed to make it out of the Republican-controlled Senate.

Right now Michael Cohen is back on The Hill, this time getting a grilling by lawmakers and staff from the House Intelligence Committee. Will it be as explosive as yesterday's public hearing?