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Trump vs. Cohen; Trump Communications Director Resigns; Outrage Grows Over Manafort Sentence. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 8, 2019 - 16:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts in just a few seconds.

Thanks for being with us here on this Friday.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Minutes after leaving a national security meeting, President Trump is talking about Michael Cohen.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump capping off a bad week with a mouthful, calling Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, a stone-cold lot liar in his denial that he ever asked for a pardon, while possibly getting hinting that he might give a pardon to his former campaign chairman.

He reshaped the White House communication team in FOX-y ways, so what is behind former FOX News exec Bill Shine suddenly bolting from the White?

Plus, he's Kellyanne Conway's husband and a shade machine when it comes to her boss, President Trump. And today noted conservative attorney George Conway took a break from Twitter and picked up a microphone.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start with the politics lead. With Congress now investigating the litany, litany of potential problems that President Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, accused him of and his testimony before Congress, the president today escalated the attack on Cohen's credibility, starting with the claim that Cohen directly asked him for a pardon.

The president tweeting today: "Bad lawyer and fraudster Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he never asked for a pardon. His lawyers totally contradicted him. He lied. Additionally, he directly asked me for a pardon. I said no. He lied again."

Highlight that part. "He directly asked me for a pardon." That contradicts Cohen's testimony under oath to Congress.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I have never asked for it, nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump.


TAPPER: As Cohen and his lawyers try to explain the discrepancy, the president is also trying to use comments made during the sentencing of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chair, as further evidence of his own innocence.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins now starts us off from the White House.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Michael Cohen lied about the pardon.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump in a battle for the truth with his former attorney and fixer today.

TRUMP: He's lied about a lot of things. But when he lied about the pardon, that was really a lie. And he knew all about pardons. His lawyers said that they went to my lawyers and asked for pardons.

COLLINS: Trump later claiming Michael Cohen -- quote -- "directly asked me for a pardon. I said no. He lied again."

The president escalating his attacks on Cohen's credibility after he testified last week that Trump lied about his business dealings with Russia and hush money payments to women.

COHEN: And I have never asked for, nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump.

COLLINS: Cohen quickly firing back, calling it just another set of lies. Trump going after Cohen after being asked about Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was sentenced almost four years in prison for cheating on his taxes and committing bank fraud.

TRUMP: I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. I think it's been a very, very tough time for him.

COLLINS: The president twisting the words of the judge who sentenced Manafort.

TRUMP: But if you notice, both his lawyer, a highly respected man, and a very highly respected judge, the judge, said there was no collusion with Russia.

COLLINS: During Manafort's hearing, Judge T.S. Ellis drew a distinction between his crimes and the special counsel's investigation, noting Manafort was -- quote -- "not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence the election."

The president and his staff refusing to close the door on a pardon for Manafort. QUESTION: Has the president rolled out a pardon for Paul Manafort?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: I haven't discussed that with the president. I haven't heard him say that.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, even as the president has gone about his job here, sources say he's become increasingly preoccupied with Michael Cohen.

He brings him up minutes after he gets out of national security briefings, talks about him during phone calls with lawmakers, and even mentioned him during strategy sessions with aides where he's discussing his administration's priorities.

He's essentially become this figure that looms over the White House.

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

Let's chat about this with my experts here.

Pamela Brown, one of our White House correspondents, the president is contradicting Cohen about this pardon issue more than a week after Cohen made the claim. Why?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So I asked Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, the same question. And, basically, he said, look, we were all so focused on this idea that he said he never wanted to work in the White House. And we had all these other witnesses come forward and said that he did.

And, basically, our thinking was, we will just hand DOJ confidential information about this, about the pardons, but then the news stories about all of it, and the contradictions that have come out in the last 24 hours sort of forced our hand.


So he tried to say it was some sort of strategy that they were dishing this stuff out of, that they wanted to go to DOJ.

I think, Jake, that also what could have happened is that the president is on Air Force One, he's talking to people on Air Force One and sends out a tweet on a whim. I mean, we have seen him do that before as well, because all of these news stories have gained so much traction.


BROWN: But what will be interesting to see is what the answer is to the president potentially being a witness in any potential perjury investigation.

He's basically saying that Michael Cohen committed perjury. So would he be a witness if there's an investigation? That's a looming question.

TAPPER: And, Seung Min, you're familiar with this, but the president even talked with reporters on his way out to Air Force about this whole pardon issue, and didn't bring up the claim he later made.

Take a listen.


TRUMP: I know that in watching and seeing you folks at night, that Michael Cohen lied about the pardons. His lawyers said that they went to my lawyers and asked for pardons.

And I could go a step above that, but I won't go to it now.


TAPPER: Well, maybe he did, then, just a little bit. He gets on the plane.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we have seen how sometimes the president can be a little bit more aggressive behind the Twitter handle than maybe he is -- even if we had -- he had all that time with the reporters.

But it's so interesting to me over and over how the president and his aides refuse to rule out the potential pardon for Manafort. I think we have seen how the president over time has treated the cases of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen differently, whereas he has been sympathetic towards Manafort and not so much towards Cohen.

And this is something that we have asked him over and over. I mean, is this something that you are going to take off the table? And I think especially now, with a House majority led by Democrats, they're already saying or proposing legislation to kind of restrict the president on this or to have some oversight of the president's pardon power.

And obviously they have the investigative power to ask a lot of questions about this.

TAPPER: And, Paul, I mean, the president does have an argument to make that Michael Cohen is not being honest, given that Michael Cohen's own attorney, Lanny Davis, yesterday issued a statement saying: "Prior to Michael Cohen's decision to leave the joint defense group and tell the truth on July 2, 2018, Michael was open to the ongoing dangling of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately in the media."

The statement goes on to say: "After July 2, Cohen authorized him as a new lawyer to say publicly he would never accept a pardon."

But, I mean, it does seem as though there were any attempts by his attorneys to suss out the pardon option.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And that's not what Mr. Cohen said in his testimony. He didn't say, well, before July 2, when I became a good guy, I did.

TAPPER: Right.

BEGALA: This is the problem, though, for our president.

Michael Cohen is a liar, admitted liar, confessed liar, convicted liar, felonious liar, and by a 52-35 margin in the Quinnipiac poll, the American people believe him over our president, because as big a liar as Michael Cohen is, the American people think their president is an even bigger liar. And that's a sad statement.

TAPPER: Doug, the House Oversight Committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, said today he's reviewing Michael Cohen's testimony. And he said he would nail him to the cross, Cohen to the cross, if he lied again, an interesting metaphor in this spring season, if he lied again.

I mean, this doesn't look like it's going to end well for Michael Cohen.

DOUG HEYE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It's not going to end well for Michael Cohen. I think the question is, how badly does this end for Donald Trump?

Because you have so many people who are speaking out against him. And even if Cohen is telling one version of truth one day, another version of it another day or a lie, it all adds up to basically negative approval rating for Donald Trump. And so the 55 percent that you mentioned, that's pretty close to what his disapproval is pretty often.

So if you say something bad about Trump, people are going to believe it.

TAPPER: I do want to bring up the Manafort plea -- sentencing, rather.

The president trying to hype a comment made by the Judge, Judge T.S. Ellis, in the Manafort case. The judge said -- quote -- "Manafort is not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government."

In the president's view, that becomes: "Both the judge and the lawyer in the Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was no collusion with Russia. But the witch-hunt continues."

That's a big difference between saying he's not here for anything having to do with collusion and the judge said there is no collusion. In fact, one might even say that that's a lie.

BROWN: Exactly.

I mean, the judge flat out did not say there is no collusion whatsoever in this investigation. It's just that it is true that Manafort was not charged with crimes relating to collusion with Russians. But, interestingly, I think you all probably noticed the statement

that Manafort's attorney put out after, saying, again, reiterating there is no collusion that my client took a part of, or whatever the words were.

And a lot of reporters viewed that as sort of a plea to President Trump for a pardon.

TAPPER: Interesting.

One last thing I want to get your reaction to, Doug. The president had another stunner as he made his way to Air Force One, talking about that anti-hate bill, and the fact that Democrats, in the view of critics, watered down the bill that was supposed to be attacking anti- Semitism.

It became an attack on bigotry, writ large, although there was certainly a lot about anti-Semitism in there. Here's what the president had to say.



TRUMP: Anti-Israel party. They have become an anti-Jewish party. And I thought that vote was a disgrace.

And so does everybody else, if you get an honest answer.


TAPPER: The Anti-Defamation League condemned that, saying that anti- Semitism shouldn't be politicized.

The Democrats have become an anti-Jewish party? That's not true.

HEYE: No, no, it's not at all.

And, unfortunately, this is what Donald Trump does so often. He makes an outrageous statement to distract us away from whatever the other bad news that he has dealing with that day, whether it's the bad jobs numbers today or what we were just talking about with Michael Cohen, so that we focus on this.

But it's obviously -- and I will say, having worked for Eric Cantor, who was the highest ranking Jewish elected Republican, it's not true. And the statements that we heard from so many House Democrats this week was that they were angry that this was watered down.

And, unfortunately, I think we will probably have the same conversation again in the coming weeks, because there will be more instances of this.

TAPPER: What is this situation here, Paul? Is it just nobody likes to criticize bigots or people with prejudice in their own party? Is that the issue? BEGALA: They may be part of it. You don't want to take on...


BEGALA: Yes, you don't want to take on your own team.

But it's also hard to argue against expanding the critique. In other deficient, if you say anti-Semitism is wrong -- and it is and it's always wrong -- it's kind of hard to say, well, Islamophobia is OK or other attacks are OK.

And I suspect that's why the House leadership expanded that resolution. But for our president, who was called out by the ADL for his final ad in the campaign -- they said it was anti-Semitic because he targeted Janet Yellen, George Soros, somebody else, all happened to be Jews.

TAPPER: Lloyd Blankfein.

BEGALA: Lloyd Blankfein, thank you, the Wall Street financier, as the enemies of the people.

ADL thought that was anti-Semitic. When he spoke to the -- I think it's a Jewish Republican group.

TAPPER: Republican Jewish Coalition.

BEGALA: He said, I don't want your money. I don't need your money, so you can't control me.

That's the self same anti-Semitic trope that this young freshman congresswoman in her first weeks in Congress is rightly being criticized for. So the president here is projecting a little.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

After a rough week of headlines, President Trump's communications director, an alum of his darling FOX News Channel, is out the door. But there's more to this back story.

Then, fallout and fury over a judge handing down a lighter-than- expected-sentence for Trump's campaign chair Paul Manafort. But his prison time could soon become much longer. How? We will explain.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead and the latest visitor to the well trod departure lounge right outside the Oval Office. White House Communications Director, Bill Shine announced that he's stepping down from his job today as sources tell CNN, President Trump had started to question Shine's judgment. The former top executive for "Fox News" now plans to be an adviser to Trump's reelection campaign and move that campaign staffers apparently learned about just this morning. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is back with us from the White House. Kaitlan, sources tell you the president was not overly enthusiastic about the job Shine was doing.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. He had been privately complaining behind the scenes that the guy he brought there to get him better coverage had not gotten him better coverage. Now in the statement the president put out today. He was glowing about Shine, announcing that he's going to his 2020 reelection campaign, is going to be totally involved but sources say that's likely just more of a cover story to save face because this is such an abrupt departure. And this is abrupt. People inside the West Wing were pretty caught off guard by this announcement that he's leaving. But there was a little bit of a hint that this could be happening because Bill Shine had been slated to go on the president's trip to Vietnam last week for that second nuclear summit but he unexpectedly dropped off just two days before.

Now he's been in the spotlight. The president had been complaining about his role here and aids had criticized him privately, even though they liked him, saying they didn't feel like he had a real communication strategy developed even though he had been here for several months. Now, Jake, the question is who is going to take this job because at least six people have already had this job in the short time President Trump has been in office and now people inside the White House are wondering who is going to be number seven?

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. Let's dive into this again. Seung Min, let me ask you first of all, CNN is reporting the president had been souring on Shine because the press coverage had not been getting better. Is that Shine's fault or is the fault of the person who is being covered who is doing and saying a lot of things that are controversial?

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER FOR "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well CNN's reporting does match up with our reporting on the matter that the president has specifically brought him on to improve his media coverage, clearly it hasn't and he had partly blamed Bill Shine for that. But the problem here that we see in the White House over and over again is that in terms of their messaging strategy is that the communications director, at the end of the day, the real one is Donald Trump himself.

He sets the message. He throws people - he throws the office, whatever they try to do off message with his tweets and with the impromptu gaggles that he has at different pool sprays(ph) and what not and it is difficult for any press office to form a message around that. He has gone through about half a dozen communications directors already. We are about half way through his presidency and that's not even -- that is one critical vacancy but so many other vacancies within the White House and in the administration right now and that's really telling of the difficulty of working under this particular president.

TAPPER: Pamela, you're a White House Correspondent as well. What's your experience with Mr. Shine? How did he try to shape coverage? PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well my experience was he was there as you pointed out to be an attack dog for Trump against reporters and to try to in some ways bully reporters into better coverage. This is an experience I had. It was a pattern of behavior. You know he did it to Kaitlan when he kicked her out of the Rose Garden event for questions she asked. I had my own experience just a few weeks ago with him after this exchange of the president in the Oval Office.


BROWN: Mr. President, did you talk to your intelligence chiefs (ph) today about the displeasure you had with their?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did. They said that they were misquoted and they were totally - it was taken out of context. So what I do is I'd suggest that you call them. They said it was fake news, which frankly didn't surprise me.

BROWN: Well we just ran exactly what they said to Congress.

TRUMP: Excuse me. I didn't surprise me at all.


TAPPER: So he took issue.

BROWN: He took issue so he brought me into his office and told me I was a nice person but that I was totally out of line and rude in that exchange with the president. First he went after the questions I asked and said they were completely inappropriate.


And when I pushed back and said, "I just asked if he expressed his displeasure with his intel chiefs (ph) after he tweeted they should go back to school and then he said something ridiculous in that they were misquoted but we just played what they said in an open hearing. He then shifted to, "well my tone was really rude and my tone was really inappropriate." And then he went on to say that the president is one of the bravest people he knows but he is the president and we should be nicer to him.

Now one of the things -- just sitting in his office it was kind of a surreal experience and remarkable to think this is the White House Communications Director and does he understand the role of the media covering the president, the most powerful person in the world? My job isn't to be nice or mean it's to cover the White House fairly, accurately and to ask tough questions. And so that was my experience.

TAPPER: So in Shine's defense, we should note that we're just over two years into Trump's Presidency and President Trump has gone through a lot of communications directors. There was Sean Spicer, Mike Dubke, Anthony Scaramucci, Hope Hicks. I think Spicer was back in the role at one point in there somewhere. Now we have Bill Shine. At some point you have to ask is the problem the advertising or is the problem the dog food?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. Right. The Washington Capitals are getting really good press lately. They won five in a row. That's why. They won the Stanley Cup last year. That's why.

If he performs well, he'll get good press and it's always the case. By the way, I used to work in a lab(ph) and I used to tell President Clinton, "We have a communications problem." They said, "Yes, the Titanic didn't have a communications problem. They had an iceberg problem." The Trump Presidency has an iceberg problem. He can - he can run through six more communications directors. He has to do a better job as president and he'll get better press then.

TAPPER: I should note that I did see efforts of Bill Shine behind the scenes trying to improve relations with CNN on a personal level. So I did see efforts of that. Maybe not with front line reporters like yourself but--but at some point you have to wonder. Look, you're somebody that worked in communications. I know everybody always wants to blame the communications department. That's all - it's we have a communications problem. I remember this during the Obama years. We have a communications problem. We have a communications problem. That's not the problem. The problem was the Obamacare website doesn't work. You know what I mean?

DOUG HEYE, FORMER RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Yes, you know we spend so much time talking about how Donald Trump is an atypical politician. In this way he is very typical. Every politician that any campaign person or congressional staffers work for always blames the communications director and Lord help you when they start talking about getting a Manhattan - Madison Avenue firm to come help which has probably happened in this White House as well.

But then Trump has the problem of who is going to accept this job now given that I think, Paul Kane, your colleague from "The Post" tweeted that the White House Communications Director is a bit like being the drummer in "Spinal Tap". Eventually you're going to spontaneously combust. And after you've seen the churning of staff that's gone through, it's - it's going to be difficult for them to fill this role.

BROWN: And also just to say too, just to kind of round out my experience, I had limited interactions with him because I was away on maternity leave when he came on board but it really was an impossible job. I mean he was tasked by the president to shape the coverage and make it better for him. And like you pointed out, who is responsible for - for negative coverage? Is it the president himself or is the communications director? The communications director can't control the president and his tweets and things that sometimes bring on that negative coverage. So it was an impossible job and we joke that that job is cursed, right? I mean no one can seem to hang on to it very long or do an effective job in the president's eyes.

TAPPER: So he's joining the campaign. He's going to be adviser to the Trump Reelection Campaign. "The New York Times" is reporting that is more of a face-saving announcement than it is a real one. What do you know about that? What do you know about who might be next in line to take on this job?

KIM: That is still something that we're reporting out particularly the one who will replace him. But this is also what we have a pattern - an issue that we've seen with the White House. Again, you know there is a departure whether it could be abrupt like this one or another one but there is no person to take over in that role. I think another very common and recent example of this was when John Kelly was on his way out.

At the end of last year you saw a lot of public trial balloons for different potential chiefs of staff that just go pop pretty quickly such as Chris Christy and others. And finally, they put Mick Mulvaney there as the acting chief of staff and that's what happens time and time again. Someone leaves. There's no one to replace him. We are still waiting for a successor to James Mattis who resigned from his position late last year as well and that is again, these critical positions that are not getting filled at this time.

TAPPER: Yes, they have acting secretary of defense, acting chief of staff but no one permanent. Stick around everyone. He spent a lifetime getting rich off of brutal dictators and big tobacco and Ukrainian gangsters. Will Paul Manafort get his due next week when he is sentenced by a different judge? Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our national lead today, critics are assailing the sentence handed down to Paul Manafort in Virginia. Judge T. S. Ellis sentenced Manafort to 47 months this prison.; that's 15 years less than the suggested minimum. Senator Kamala Harris weighing in on the sentence just moments ago.


KAMALA HARRIS, U.S. SENATOR (D) CALIFORNIA: We are looking at further evidence in America's judicial system of absolute unfairness where white collar versus other kinds of crimes - does that - you know this is what I say. People commit white collar crimes, they should be prepared to bring their toothbrush and spend as much time behind bars as anybody else.