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Cohen Under Fire for Comments on Possible Pardon; Ex-White House Chief of Staff Breaks with Trump Immigration Policies; Trump Quietly Ends Mandated Public Reporting of Civilians Killed in Drone Strikes; Reports Say North Korea Is Putting Back Together a Long-Range Ballistic Missile Facilities It Dismantled; Melania Trump Pushes Projects in Wake of Cohen's Testimony. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 7, 2019 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Just weeks before he heads to prison, the president's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, is facing new questions about whether he told another lie to Congress. Cohen directed his attorney, Stephen Ryan, to ask about the possibility of a presidential pardon last spring just weeks after the FBI raided his home and office.

But take a listen to what Cohen told the House committee last week when he was under oath and under penalty of perjury.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER PERSONAL ATTORNEY TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I have never asked for nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump.


KEILAR: Well, we have former House Intel Chairman Mike Rogers. He's a CNN national security commentator with us and senior fellow at the New American Security. Carrie Cordero, she is a CNN legal analyst.

Chairman, listen to what Republican Susan Collins said about all this. And Michael Cohen couldn't have been more direct in what he said. This is what Susan Collins has said about his testimony.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: If you find out that he asked the Trump team for a pardon, does that change your opinion of him or his testimony?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: If Michael Cohen asked for a pardon?


COLLINS: I do think that that is problematic because it casts doubt over the veracity of all of his testimony.


KEILAR: Do you agree with that, Chairman?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: I do. And for this reason. He came under a cloud of suspicion. He had a pretty big hurdle to get over for the credibility piece that he would be telling the truth. In that open hearing, there was a lot of personal animus that came out in that hearing as well, right, which I think taints --


KEILAR: Toward President Trump and -- right.

ROGERS: Yes, toward President Trump, which I always think taints your -- you have to speak careful about taking those things with any degree of seriousness because of that personal animus. And if you add this in, he's already lied to the committee once, I think this will be big trouble for his credibility. You would have to go through and prove every allegation with lots of physical evidence at that point.

KEILAR: What do you think?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think that the staff of the committees, they'll go back and they're going to parse very carefully exactly what the words are that he used, and then determine whether or not they need to call him back or ask him to clarify his statements in writing. There might be an argument that, if you take the exact statement that he said, "I did not seek a pardon," versus what's being reported that maybe he asked a lawyer to go ask about it, that that potentially could be a technical difference and it wouldn't actually fall under perjury. But certainly I think, there's a strong argument that it will -- it affects his credibility just the fact that there might be some discrepancy there.

KEILAR: Well, that's what I --


KEILAR: That's right.

ROGERS: He's in this court of public opinion, which had this cloud. I think clearly the threshold is a little lower, if you damage your credibility again, what that means for Congress' way forward on using his testimony.

KEILAR: Because that's what he has to square, right? Was he being extremely -- was he splitting hairs, right? Was he being extremely literal? Because any reasonable person who listened to what he said would have taken that to mean that it was not asked about or a pardon was not inquired about, just in general, even on his behalf, right?

CORDERO: Even contemplated.

KEILAR: And to be clear, he said he didn't ask for a pardon. His lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Cohen's former lawyer inquired about it.

CORDERO: I think one of the best ways that perhaps the committee could proceed would be to ask him to clarify. They could do that in writing and lay it out, they could ask him to come back again, and that way they need to get a record. But now that Michael Cohen is in the position that he's in, it is in his interest to be truthful, and that last hearing in open session was the opportunity to be truthful.

KEILAR: I guess I wonder why would he lie about this? He came and said things that clearly did not make him look good, and I wonder, was there a reason to lie? Because it seems like with the president granting a number of high-profile pardons, this might not have come as a surprise if he solicited this.

Why would he lie, Chairman?

ROGERS: I think a couple of reasons. In dealing with people in my former life as an FBI guy, some people will lie for a whole host of purposes, including to get out of jail. So you have to be really careful about when they're in that mode of, I am trying to protect myself first and I know what you want. They'll be great ringmasters. I know exactly the kind of information you want. That's why I was really interested in how all that personal animus that the committee allowed to come out, because we knew what he was doing, right? He's trying to paint a picture that, "I would love for you all to go back to the prosecutor and tell him how great I was, so maybe my three-year sentence is a two-year sentence." That may be appropriate, that may be accurate, but now you have to go through and prove it. I think the reason he was trying to be -- he wanted to be the victim in this. I would never ask nor never take a pardon. He would rather go to jail for three years than take a pardon? I doubt it. That credibility piece is very important. You have to calm him down, get the information. Now they'll have to go back and prove every single allegation with something other than his testimony.

[13:35:24] KEILAR: Carrie, I want to ask about the former White House chief of staff, John Kelly, because he's made a number of headlines. He's spoke to, talked about on the travel ban. He said the "administration got I front of its skis" on declaring a national emergency on the border. "Thank goodness we have this thing called the courts." On the deployment of active-duty troops to the border, he said, "I would always look for another way to do it. On the border wall, "don't need a wall from sea to shining sea." And that migrants are, quote, "overwhelmingly not criminals."

We've heard something like that from him before, about them not being criminals, but he also said some disparaging things about migrants. What do you make of this?

CORDERO: I don't know. Mr. Kelly had a 10-year at the Department of Homeland Security when he was the secretary where many of the aggressive measures that the administration has taken came to fruition. And that the ground worked for the ill-conceived and poorly implemented family separation policy, that groundwork was laid when he was secretary and then when he was at the White House. So it is difficult to hear at this point, given his role both at the White House and at the Department of Homeland Security, that now he is somewhat potentially -- and I'll have to read his full remarks -- distancing himself from all of those policies. On the other hand, it is not unusual for a senior leader or an adviser to a principal or to a president to personally disagree with policies that are implemented. So now he's out of government and so he's free to say what he wants. But he was very in the middle of these specific policies for quite some time.

KEILAR: Carrie Cordero, Mike Rogers, thank you so much to both of you.

Coming up, President Trump nixing a rule that requires the U.S. to public report on civilian deaths in drone strikes outside of war zones. Did he just give the U.S. more power to kill in secret?

Plus, more on our breaking news. A surprise in the 2020 race that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is not running for president.


[13:42:08] KEILAR: In a very quiet move, President Trump rolled back another Obama-era reform aimed at government accountability. With an executive order, the president ended the mandated public reporting of the number of civilians killed in drone strikes, non-military drone strikes outside of war zones.

Tom Donilon is a former national security advisor to President Obama, and he's joining us now.

Thank you for coming into the studio.


KEILAR: When you look at this, this repeal of this provision and we should be clear, this is reporting civilian deaths --


KEILAR: -- but in non-military done strikes and in areas that are not considered war zones. So we're talking Yemen, Africa, Pakistan. What's the effect of getting rid of that?

DONILON: I think it reduces transparency and accountability. I think it's a mistake, frankly. It's a pattern of reducing transparency. You see it in the lack of the White House every day. Not having a White House briefing at all for weeks is a historical thing. You saw it in the refusal to answer the questions about Saudi Arabia. Yes, this executive order the President Obama put out in 2016 asked for an annual reporting by the DNI on the number of strikes that were taken, lethal strikes that were taken, and the number of civilian casualties. I think it just makes sense. The United States is not just another nation. I think that, Brianna, is kind of a theme here that I would like to get across. We hold ourselves accountable. And we actually undertake extremely careful efforts not to kill civilians. It undercuts that.

KEILAR: Do you think that with this repeal more civilians will die?

DONILON: We don't know, right? We don't have the same level of accountability. I'll tell you this, when you do have this level of transparency, when you do have this level of accountability, of publicly reporting on this, you do have outside groups take a look at this. You put pressure on yourself and the government. As you know, I oversaw, for a number of years, our counterterrorism efforts in the United States government. It makes you better. We have an example right now. The Pentagon under General Mattis undertook a really serious study last year of civilian casualties. Why did they do that? Because there was a discrepancy between what they were seeing and they're reporting internally and what the external entities were reporting, the NGOs. That discrepancy caused the Pentagon to undertake a serious study as to doctrine and accountability and investigatory methods to ensure that we can do better.

KEILAR: Part of that may be because what is the definition of a civilian. And the NGOs may be more liberal in that description.

So to play devil's advocate here, I want to ask you if the effect of repealing this is more of a value statement about transparency or is it effectively going to mean more deaths? I know you said it's hard to tell. Because human rights advocates will look at the Obama-era policy, which the president did just months before leaving office, and they'll say, you know, it wasn't particularly transparent. They wanted it to be more transparent. That one didn't say the names of those civilians killed, or the areas or even the countries where they were killed. Again, it was unclear exactly what the definition of what a civilian was. They felt the Obama administration had moved the goalpost on that. Is it a value statement or is it a real change?

[13:45:32] DONILON: It's both. It's a value statement in that the United States, as I said, is not just another country. And we really should hold ourselves accountable and hold ourselves accountable publicly. When the United States engages in a lethal action where it kills a combatant, we should take that on and we should do it transparently and in terms of accountability, and we should make amends if we can. But it's also an effective statement. We will be more effective, we will have less casualties if we have more transparency. Last, the programs will be more sustainable if, in fact, the American people have a sense, right, that we're being candid and we are doing things in the way we say we're going to do in terms of following very tight procedures. But you can't get zero casualties, Brianna --


KEILAR: Especially in your tenure as national security adviser, you supported and would speak openly about support for the drone strike program. And we should put that out there, that it's necessary. You're saying people -- thought it was controversial and people won't sign on and be OK with it if it's lacking transparency.

DONILON: I think transparency and accountability adds to the ability to get support for these programs, which are needed to combat terrorism. I think it is values, I think its effectiveness, I think its civility, I think it's a mistake.

KEILAR: On North Korea, since I have you here -- DONILON: Yes.

KEILAR: -- state TV has aired this documentary and it has lauded the summit between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump. It leaves out the failure on the negotiations. But at the same time, North Korea is reportedly putting back together long-range ballistic missile facilities it had dismantled. Where does it leave the relations at this point?

DONILON: Let's say a couple of things about it. First, I don't think the summit was well prepared. We didn't really have a set of fundamental things on which we agreed, including the definition of denuclearization. That's the first point. Second, is an important political point, which I think you're getting to, which is the program, despite President Trump's statements -- and by the way, I'm for reduced tensions and we should wish him success on this. But his statements that we are not having missile testing and we're not seeing nuclear tests, that doesn't mean the program is frozen. The fact of the matter is the program has been progressing the entire time., the entire time since the Singapore summit. The analytical mistake I see the president making in saying, "I'm in no rush," is not correct. Because the program has been, despite the revelations we saw behind two nonprofit groups, academic groups over the past few days that there was some advancement at a facility in northwestern North Korea, that shouldn't be a surprise. Because, in fact, the program with missiles and every other element of the program, including production of fissile material, have been coming along anyway. And the last thing I'll is, why does that matter. Because the numbers matter. The numbers matter for proliferation risks, for verification risks and they matter in terms of the effectiveness on missile defense systems. We need to get a real freeze during these negotiations, would be my advice to the president.

KEILAR: We'll see if he hears your advice.

DONILON: Thanks.

KEILAR: Tom Donilon, thank you so much for coming in.

DONILON: OK. Nice to see you.

KEILAR: Really appreciate it.


KEILAR: Michael Cohen said that it was his biggest regret, lying to Melania Trump. How has she been spending her days since his testimony?

And taking on trolls. The royal family cracks on racist remarks about Meghan Markle. What CNN found when it looked into the Twitter hate.


[13:53:20] KEILAR: With all of the drama happening in Washington involving President Trump's closest former associates, from Michael Cohen's now questionable testimony and him suing the Trump Organization, to Paul Manafort's prison sentencing, first lady, Melania Trump, hasn't been in the spotlight, but she's been keeping busy.

We have CNN's Kate Bennett following the first lady this week.

So speaking of Michael Cohen, he made a very public apology to her. Has she responded to that?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: She has not. She went on a trip on Monday across the country and the question was shouted at her, do you accept his apology, and she ignored the question, which she often does. So, no, she has not officially responded. But that was a very notable moment in his testimony.

KEILAR: So what does she think as she's trying to promote her agenda, what's really been lack of attention to her initiative?

BENNETT: Melania Trump is doing things like she wants to do, as she always does. Whether it's on a right time frame or whether it's with a certain amount of marketability behind it, she doesn't really care, she's going to just push it. She took her first domestic solo overnight trip this week to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Seattle, Washington, to Microsoft. That visit was important because she really, to be honest, has trouble having corporations want to partner with you. That's new for a first lady because of the politics attached to the administration. She has struggled to get big corporate sponsors to work with her. So going to Microsoft, where she saw technology that protect kids online, helps parents monitor kid's gaming. This is part of her "Be Best" three pillars that you probably couldn't name, right.


KEILAR: I actually cannot name them.

BENNETT: It's children's well-being. It's online safety. People often think of the cyberbullying. And it's the opioid crisis in America. She spoke on Tuesday at a town hall about that. She's really done a lot to help neo-natal abstinence syndrome, which is a smaller part of the crisis that affects newborn babies. She also talked about making spaghetti for the family. So we learned a little bit more about it.


BENNETT: And renovating the bowling alley.

[13:55:23] KEILAR: Interesting. Pulling back the curtain there. I clearly need to brush up because I failed that pop quiz.

Kate Bennett, thank you so much.

We have more on our breaking news. Michael Cohen suing the Trump Organization in what looks to be the next big fight.