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Ex-Fixer Michael Cohen Sues the Trump Organization; Sentencing for Paul Manafort Today; Senator Sherrod Brown Not Running for President; Biden's Team Says 95 Percent Committed to A 2020 Run; House to Vote on Anti-Hate Resolution; The Breadth of Trump Scandals Even Before The Mueller Report. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 7, 2019 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: I'm Ana Cabrera in for Brooke Baldwin. Michael Cohen has just filed a lawsuit against the Trump Organization. The President's former personal attorney and so-called fixer says the company failed to fulfill its contractual obligations when the Trump Organization abruptly stopped paying his legal fees last summer, talking more about this with us now. CNN's Kara Scannell and Harry Litman, a former U.S. Attorney.

The Trump organization originally agreed to pay Cohen and the fees that he was acquiring through all these investigations, what's he claiming happened?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right. Michael Cohen is alleging that the Trump Organization agreed to cover his legal fees. This beginning back in July of 2017 when the Congressional investigations were getting under way, when Robert Mueller's was under way. According to the lawsuit, Cohen says that once he agreed to stop working with them and struck out on his own with a new lawyer where it was clear he was going to cooperate with the investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, that they stopped paying his legal fees. He's seeking compensatory damages, over $2 million in unreimbursed legal fees he says the Trump Organization owes him.

CABRERA: So, it's an interesting story here when you think about the fact that Cohen was working with and in tandem with the Trump team and then decided to cooperate with federal investigators in many ways against the Trump team. Is it -- is it typical for companies to agree to something like this up front and what is the reality now that he gets a check cut?

HARRY LITMAN, A FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Right. So, first, is it typical? Not really. It's not unusual for directors to have indemnification agreements for matters that arise out of their employment and part of Cohen's job here is the fixer and doing of some shady things but it typically excludes criminal conduct that's for starters and, two, the complaint is very sketchy about the nature of this agreement. No agreement is set out, no exhibit. It sounds as if at some point Trump said, Yes, we'll cover these bills and then, understandably, decided not to keep writing checks once Cohen set out and was cooperating against him. So I think Cohen's argument is, you agreed and in other agreements, you have to go for the life of the matter that would be some policies, but it doesn't look that that's what was promised here and it doesn't look as if there's actually any piece of paper that Cohen is relying on.

CABRERA: I can't help but think of Cohen's testimony last week where Republicans were pressing him on how his attorney Lanny Davis was getting paid and Cohen basically said he was being represented pro bono, maybe Davis had this lawsuit in mind?

LITMAN: So maybe. Now, he did have -- he says in his complaint he contracted with a white shoe expensive law firm on this promise and then when they pulled out the rug from under him, he was left with, you know, owing them a million dollars and they withdrew. I think it's true that Davis in that P.R. role might be doing it for his own reasons, but the bread and butter lawyers that he's had since, that's what he's having trouble paying, that's who he says the Trump organization should pay for but again with very sketchy evidence. One thing here, though, he may be hoping that as part of the lawsuit he gets the opportunity to depose the promisers who are both of the Trump sons and possibly Trump himself and that creates a kind of a pressure if the court let's him do it.

CABRERA: Thanks for breaking down this latest news.

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman faces the first of two sentencing hearings, which will eventually determine if the 69- year-old will spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was found guilty of defrauding banks and the government and failing to pay taxes on millions of dollars in income he earned from Ukrainian political consulting, charges that stemmed from the special counsel's Robert Mueller investigation into the 2016 Presidential election. Manafort deserves between 19 and 25 years say prosecutors in just this one case and that he should pay millions of dollars in fines and restitution for these crimes. He was convicted by a jury after a three week trial last summer. Manafort, for his part, has shown little remorse prosecutors say, even lying under oath following a plea deal after the trial. Shimon Prokupecz is CNN's crime and justice reporter and joins us now. Do we expect to hear from Manafort himself today?

[14:05:07] SHIMON PROKUPESZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. It's very likely we may. Usually in these proceedings we get to hear from the defendants. It's really their last shot, it's their last bid trying to get any kind of leniency from the judge and as you said, Ana, Paul Manafort after today could be spending the rest of his life in prison at 69. He's about to turn 70. Any significant sentence could mean that Paul Manafort will never, ever be a free man again. Obviously that is weighing heavily on him. It could be that we hear from him in a last-ditch effort to try and get some leniency from this judge.

CABRERA: We will be watching every moment of this hearing, Shimon Prokupecz, thank you. We'll come back as we get closer to the hearing.

House Democrats gearing up to take a vote on a resolution condemning hatred in all forms. A resolution rooted in controversy surrounding Minnesota Congresswoman Omar. She's faced bipartisan criticism. Within the Democratic party, a split has emerged over how to deal with these comments and the backlash that has followed. Earlier Nancy Pelosi said it was up to Omar to explain what she meant while also saying the freshman Democrat perhaps didn't understand the impact of her remarks.


NANCY PELOSI, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I feel confident that her words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude, but that she didn't have a full appreciation of how they landed on other people where these words have a history and a cultural impact that may have been unknown to her.


CABRERA: CNN correspondent Sunlen Serfaty joins us now from Capitol Hill. There has been a lot of back and forth and a lot of emotion on this issue, Sunlen, what is it about this issue that has created such a divide between Democrats?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think first and foremost it's a very sensitive issue and topic and I think this is really highlighted the many competing wings essentially of the Democratic party that I think is really highlighted especially in the House Democratic caucus. We've seen this struggle in the last 48 hours into how to reprimand Ilhan Omar, how far will they go and really broken down between old guard, new guard and the new guard has a big spotlight on them now that they've been vocal in pushing to they believe this resolution should not single her out right and they were pushing for leadership to expand and broaden that resolution which in the end it did and it now only covers anti-Semitism but broaden it out to cover anti-Islamic phobia, but this struggle is something that House Democratic leadership will have to, you know, struggle with over the next few months not only with controversies like these, but potentially other controversy that's come up as they manage this new reality of the make-up of the House.

CABRERA: Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill for us. Thanks.

Another Democrat has announced he is not running for President in 2020, Sherrod Brown says he will keep calling out Donald Trump and his quote, "phony populism" and he'll keep fighting for workers nationwide, but he will not do is run for President. Taking his name out of the running saying he thinks he can be most effective by staying in Congress. Jessica Wehrman, she is a Washington correspondent for the "Columbus Dispatch." Your initial reaction to Sherrod Brown's decision not to run.

JESSICA WEHRMAN, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "COLUMBUS DISPATCH": It looked -- it looked in all respects that he was seriously, seriously considering it. He had staff in place. It really seemed like all of the dominos were ling for him running, but then apparently he's been thinking about this on Wednesday, he decided not to run on Thursday, he organized a conference call with a small group of reporters including myself and said he's not going to do it. He wanted to stay where he could find joy and he finds joy in the Senate. [14:10:01] CABRERA: So beyond finding joy in the Senate, why do you

think he came to this decision?

WEHRMAN: I think there's a number of factors at play. He insists it wasn't any of the other contenders and he says it wasn't money. Anybody who wants to run has to think about. Senator brown's a very pragmatic politician. I don't know that he would have run unless he thought very seriously that, you know, he was stood a chance of basically beating a very, very crowded Democratic primary. I think that probably at the end of the day he looked at all of the different factors and decided he could -- he could do well to, you know, serve in the Senate to continue to be a fighter. Minutes after he gave he told us what his plans were, he gave a very impassioned speech about judges. Senate to continue to be a fighter. Minutes after he gave he told us what his plans were, he gave a very impassioned speech about judges.

CABRERA: Who's lane opened up a bit more?

WEHRMAN: A lot of the folks who talk about work would probably say Senator Biden would benefit from this. I think it's very hard to tell at this point. It is such a crowded race. There's 14 declared nominees now, so I think it opens it up possibly for him, possibly for anyone who really emphasizes the industrial Midwest. Senator Brown had considered this very seriously because he was talking -- he was thinking about -- about states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan and Ohio and Wisconsin. If President Trump had lost those in 2012, he would have lost the presidency. Whoever can win those in 20 will be able to win.

CABRERA: There was so much discussion about Sherrod Brown and how he was able to win Ohio even though it also went for President Trump and a lot of people looked at that as a sign of his electability. Senator Brown not running for President in 2020. Jessica Wehrman.

Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

Live "South By Southwest," three CNN Presidential "TOWN HALLS" backed to back with these three candidates who have said they are running. That's on Sunday, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate starting at 7:00 Eastern this weekend.

We are waiting for two major events this afternoon, the House voting soon on a resolution condemning hate and a judge will sentence Paul Manafort.

Also, there's new reporting that Joe Biden's 2020 plan is almost complete, so how would he shake up the race?


CABRERA: Welcome back. While Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is saying no to 2020, Joe Biden may be preparing to say yes, the "New York Times" citing sources close to the former Vice President reports that Biden is 95 percent ready to run and could make it official early next month. Joel Payne was a senior aide for Hillary and joins us now. A recent CNN poll shows 62 percent of Democratic and Democratic leaning voters say Biden should enter the 2020 race. How would he shake-up the current field if he does join?

JOEL PAYNE, SENIOR AIDE, HILLARY FOR AMERICA : This is so interesting. A lot of Democrats like the idea of Joe Biden, but I think that when you look at his history of running, remember, this will be his third run for the White House. He has a history of gaffes. A lot of Democrats are concerned about that and concerned about how the President would caricature him on the trail. He's got the highest name I.D. in the field. I was talking to one dem saying that's all great, but look at all the gaffes he's made. I've got memes sent to me of things he said over the years. A lot of concern about whether or not Biden could last in this environment. A lot of mixed feeling out there from Democrats.

CABRERA: And Biden tops a number of the polls right now. Why is that? Is it the name recognition? Is it nostalgia for the Obama years? Maybe the fact that he is just not a candidate yet and so maybe he is not being scrutinized?

PAYNE: It's all name I.D. at this point really that's all you can go on. There haven't been any debates. A lot of the pressing of the flesh in Iowa and New Hampshire has not happened yet. So he's the former Vice President for a popular President. He's going to top most lists. I think what you're going to start to see is that as the field shrink, you saw the Sherrod Brown news earlier today which was probably linked to Vice President Biden's story in the "New York Times," I think as you start to see that field shrink, you'll start to see Democrats have a stronger focus on who they want their candidate to be.

CABRERA: You talked about Biden being gaffe prone, we also know he has quite the extensive record from his decades in government and our K-FILE team reminds us of just some of these comments back in 1993.


JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT (1993 speech): We have predators on our streets that society has, in fact, in part because of its neglect created. Again, it does not mean because we created them that we somehow forgive them or do not take them out of society to protect my family and yours from them. They are beyond the pale many of those people, beyond the pale and it's a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society.


CABRERA: Beyond the pale, those comments were from a different time and obviously very controversial in the year 2019. Are those comments and his record at large going to be a problem for him in this race?

PAYNE: Oh, you bet. Just look at the comments a few weeks ago about Vice President pence that he made where he said he was a nice guy and progressive Twitter had its way with him. The case for Biden and the case against Biden is linked because a lot of Democrats like the fact that he's straight talking, that he's plain spoken, that he is middle America.

[14:20:03] CABRERA: That's what so many people love about Donald Trump, right?

PAYNE: That is what people love about Donald Trump but that's also the risk with Biden is that there is a propensity to be off message and undisciplined. So what his greatest strength is his greatest weakness. I know he'll have a lot of infrastructure support. Whether or not he can win over the progressives in the party who are really controlling the party discussion and the party apparatus right now is to be determined.

CABRERA: Pivoting to the current Congress and the controversy surrounding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, there are a couple of aspects of this debate. Some have questioned how hard is it to call out anti- Semitism saying let's just get on with it? Why do we have to go back and forth on this resolution? Others have questioned, should Congress and the controversy surrounding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, there are a couple of aspects of this debate. Some have questioned how hard is it to call out anti-Semitism saying let's just get on with it? Why do we have to go back and forth on this resolution? Others have questioned, should it be about more than anti-Semitism about hatred and bigotry in general? Where do you fall on this?

PAYNE: I had conversations with a couple of people on the House Democratic side. I talked to one senior person in a CBC officewho said they felt like there was such a rush to get out in front of this, to kind of put Representative Omar out there in an island because Democrats didn't want to create any kind of doubt about their feelings of anti-Semitism, but in the process they've ostracized her. That bothered a lot of the new Democrats and a lot of those progressives. I talked to more mainstream Democrat, a senior member who said, they feel like they just want her to be more thoughtful with her words. Her first comments about a month ago were the ones that were more problem attic referring to APAC and paying for support. I think that a lot of people feel like you could argue she's just making a comment about whether or not there's too much influence of lobbying in Congress and that's the point that they're saying, she needs to be more thoughtful and more focused when she's making those comments. She's got a reputation now, unfortunately, and that's going to be held against her.

CABRERA: Has this issue hurt the Democratic brand?

PAYNE: No, I don't believe it's hurt the Democratic brand no more than Steve King has hurt the Republican brand or Donald Trump has hurt the Republican brand. There are outliers in every party. There's a lot of opinion. There's a big tent. There are people, by the way, who are new, new to this discussion who have different ways of communicating. I don't think the Democratic brand is harmed at all. I actually think Speaker Pelosi spoke have eloquently earlier about this. Her words did not match her attitude and a lot of Democrats are confident about that as well.

CABRERA: Thank you. Michael Cohen facing questions about whether he lied to Congress again

about seeking a pardon from the White House. Will all his testimony now be called into question?

Plus the royal family cracks down on racist remarks about Meghan Markle. What CNN found when it looked into the hate against her.


CABRERA: When Robert Mueller submits his report there's always been a chance Congress or the general public won't see what's in it, but "Axios" is showing us the forest through the trees today noting the past couple of years have been overwhelmed with political scandal, perhaps the most in American history. And without much precedent of how to handle such scandal, it's important to put all of this in perspective. So there's the hush money payments, right? Right before Trump won the election with two women alleging affairs with Trump and the lies around those hush payments, there is a historical parallel for this one. Bill Clinton, he lied about his affair with a White House intern, albeit under oath. Then there's the firing of James Comey. We know it was at least in part because of the quote, Russia thing. There's a parallel here too. 1973, remember Richard Nixon he fired his top Department of Justice officials to try to end the Watergate investigation. Think about this one. Negotiating the Trump Tower/Moscow project during the campaign and hiding it from the public. No historical parallel for that one. Scandal number four, the more than 100 contacts made between Russian officials and Trump associates during the campaign. Zero precedent there. One of those contacts, of course, Michael Flynn, he has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian officials. Back in the news recently, the President overruling the advice of his lawyers and intelligence experts and demanding security clearances for his son-in- law and daughter. Historical parallel, nope, none. With me now CNN Presidential historian Tim Naftali. I want to get your perspective on this, just how scandalous is this presidency compared to past?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, this presidency has more scandals happening simultaneously than his predecessors in the case of other presidencies such as Richard Nixon, we learned some of the scandals later when the pieces were only put together in some cases at the end. Right now the President is facing challenges on multiple fronts because of verifiable information that suggests misconduct on various fronts --

CABRERA: Information that suggests misconduct, but Republicans will argue there's not a smoking gun?

NAFTALI: First of all, there were many smoking guns in the Nixon case and the question is, what is -- what are you trying to answer? If you're looking for the fact that the Russians intervened in the 2016 election, you have enough publicly available information about that. If you're looking for Presidential involvement, right, we don't have that material and if it exists and if the President was involved, we have to wait to see what the Mueller investigation and what the House investigations turn up. If you're question is, were American interacting with a foreign power, we have already information that indicates that. Are you asking, is the Trump administration using power in ways that suggests abuse of power? We have information that already suggests that. Whether this package of misconduct and suggestive misbehavior is enough for impeachment, that's a question for a much later day, but already we know on multiple fronts this is an administration that's engaged or associates have engaged in at least questionable, if not criminal behavior.