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Attorney: Trump Has "No Plans" To Testify In Hush Money Case; Tonight, Trump In Iowa Following Visits From Haley & DeSantis; Battle For Bakhmut Rages With Close-Quarter Trench Fighting. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired March 13, 2023 - 14:30   ET




BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: New developments today in the Manhattan investigation into former President Trump. His attorney says he'll not testify before that grand jury, which is investigating the alleged hush money payments made to two women who alleged to have had affairs with the former president.

But the man who made those payments on Trump's behalf, his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, is testifying today.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER PRIVATE ATTORNEY TO DONALD TRUMP: This is not revenge, right? What this is about is accountability. I don't want to see anyone, including Donald Trump indicted, prosecuted, convicted, incarcerated, simply because I fundamentally disagree with them. This is all about accountability. He needs to be held accountable for his dirty deeds.


GOLODRYGA: Joining me now is Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and legal affairs columnist for the "Los Angeles Times."

Harry, always good to see you.

So the former president said he'll not be testifying.


GOLODRYGA: I would imagine you're not surprised by that news.

LITMAN: Not at all. Very few defendants will take that final offer or punitive defendants. He's a target now that he's basically been told that they're going to indict.

He gets a final stance to go in and try to persuade the grand jury but the die is cast, he knows it, and it will be a suicide mission for him to accept the offer. He won't do it. GOLODRYGA: As we just noted, Michael Cohen is testifying, though one

could argue he's not the most credible of witnesses. He has lied before. He's admitted to that.

But he's also pled guilty to making illegal payments to Stormy Daniels on the former president's behalf.

Here's what he said today in addition to what we told reporters. He said, "My goal was to tell the truth, allow Alvin Bragg and the D.A. and his team to do what they need to do. I'm just here to answer the questions."

How significant do you think his testimony is and will be?

LITMAN: If it goes to trial - and it's important to keep in mind it'll be many months after the indictment until it finally does - his testimony is the centerpiece of the trial. He tells the story.

There's corroborating evidence they've now put together that looks as if it Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway and, of course, the paper record itself.

But his will be the main story. And the other centerpiece of the trial the cross-examination of him. As you say, he lied before. That's one of the reasons he went to jail.

And the attorney for Trump, another indication he knows he's going to trial will go after him savagely for other lies ostensibly as well. So that is the two highlights of drama in the trial.

GOLODRYGA: This is a new attorney that the former president has hired and taken on, yes?

LITMAN: Yes, and it's a relative recent -- she apparently already has gone in with a couple of colleagues to try to talk Bragg out of it.

So that means, after Cohen's testimony, that's the kind of last step and the path is clear to ask the grand jury for an indictment.

But she is someone known as a very strong in-court trial lawyer. In these kinds of stages, sometimes you want someone who negotiates a deal, sometimes you want someone who frightens the prosecutors or tries to as a formidable courtroom opponent. She is the latter.

GOLODRYGA: How would an indictment play out here? We're talking about misdemeanor, felony charges. What are you seeing take place?

LITMAN: So it gets a little bit legal but not that complicated. The regular crime -- and it's not, by the way, paying hush money. Nothing against the law there.

It's the misidentification and characterization of it as legal payments to Cohen, which it never was, that to have misidentified it, that's a misdemeanor.

But it becomes a felony if you do it to further another crime. What would that other crime here be? A campaign finance violation is what we're hearing.

And the notion is that # 130,000 was to help Trump's campaign because, had her secrets been revealed, it would have been potentially catastrophic near the end of the campaign.

That's an untested theory right now. So that's why people are saying and lawyers are saying it might be a bit of a challenge for Bragg.


But that's the important point, sort of a double crime, the underlying misidentification of the payment. Added to that, in furtherance of an illegal campaign contribution.

GOLODRYGA: And that's given the novelty a potential likelihood of jail time for the former president very low.

LITMAN: Well, yes and no. You know, the felony makes it something that would have an eligibility of four years. When and if we ever arrive at that point where he's been convicted, there's going to be all these, you know, dueling notions.

And someone who's convict of that would probably see jail time versus what does this do to the country, et cetera. So if he's able, Bragg, to succeed in this felony theory, I don't think jail time is off the table.

GOLODRYGA: We know Michael Cohen served a little over 13 months.

Harry Litman, thank you so much.

LITMAN: All right.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Ukrainian and Russian officials say Russia has sustained heavy losses over the last 24 hours in the battle over the city of Bakhmut. The intense fighting there going yard by yard. We have new details ahead.



GOLODRYGA: Well, the next presidential election is still 20 months away, but already Iowa seems to be the place to be. Former President Trump will be in the state tonight, a state he won by the way in 2016 and 2020.

BERMAN: And two of his Republican rivals, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, were just there last week. So we have a lot to talk about, not to mention Iowa has a lot to talk about.

With us now Jeff Zeleny, CNN's national affairs correspondent, who just got back from Iowa. And honestly, one of the best reporters on Iowa.

GOLODRYGA: For sure. BERMAN: And Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst and senior

editor for "The Atlantic," one of the best people on earth.

Happy to have you both here with us.

Jeff, I just want to start with you.

As Bianna mentioned, Trump lost in 2016 in Iowa in the caucuses. He did well there in the general election in 2016 and 2022. But if you're talking about a Republican primary, Jeff, where do you think, and based on what you saw, things stand for the former president in the Hawkeye State?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: John, there's no question many Republicans are open to an alternative. Really, every conversation begins with, they like Trump's policies but they don't like his personality or behavior. We've heard that for years and years.

That doesn't mean they wouldn't vote for him in a general election, but let's put things in order here. The primaries and caucuses come first.

There are many Republicans that I spoke to last week who are looking for an alternative. There are also many who are waiting in line right now in Davenport who are eager to support the former president once again.

So the party is divided. There's no doubt about that.

But there is a sense of fatigue that hangs over virtually every conversation with Republicans, both in Iowa and New Hampshire, early states.

And across the country, they are ready to turn the page because they're ready to win back the White House. And they believe this sort backward-looking, sort of relitigating 2020 is not the way to do it.

However, someone has to defeat President Trump. He's not going to be defeated by himself, and that, of course, brings the challenge.

GOLODRYGA: So, Ron, who are the potential alternatives Iowans have their eyes on? Nikki Haley was there. And we saw the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who has not officially announced but speculation he will in the coming months.

The governor of the state was there with him twice on stage, I believe. So what does that signal to you?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The question about the Iowa caucus is whether it is still this local grass roots burrow into the state. Remember the old "Saturday Night Live" skit, Teddy Kennedy folding the family's laundry back in 1978.

Whether that is still the route to win Iowa, or whether really it's just a stage on which national competition plays out. And if it's the latter, as I think it increasingly seems to be, then clearly Ron DeSantis is far above any of the other political rivals to Donald Trump.

But even he faces the kind of Rubik's Cube of assembling a coalition to displace Trump.

It's important to remember that Donald Trump did not reach 50 percent of the vote in any Republican primary contest in 2016 until after he'd clenched the nomination. Because he dominated among the blue-collar half of the party. And the white-collar half of the party never consolidated on a single side.

You can look at a lot of polls, polls of Pennsylvania, lots of college-educated Republicans very dubious of Trump. But his hold on that non-college side is still very formidable.

And so it's something of a Rubik's Cube to figure out how to assemble a coalition to get past him.

BERMAN: To suggest, based on what you're seeing, how are these candidates differentiating themselves from Trump, and how will Trump try to differentiate himself from them?

ZELENY: Well, that is exactly going to be an interesting thing to watch this evening, what the former president does. Because he is the one of course in the seat here.

He's been watching with interest what his own governor, the Florida governor has been doing.

And last week, Governor DeSantis and former Governor Nikki Haley were not differentiating themselves from Donald Trump at all.

They simply are different in the sense they're a new generation of leaders and different in their biographies and experience.

But they're not talking about the former president. We'll see if the former president talks about them this evening. There's reason to believe that he might.

One thing I also heard again and again is that Republicans are very -- sort of weary and warning Donald Trump against bringing down other candidates at this point, particularly Governor DeSantis.


So I think the former president has to be careful here, sort of walking the fine line and not being too critical. But that's what these campaigns are all about.

The Trump campaign has put out some endorsements this afternoon from Iowa supporters. But I was also hearing last week that he's made several phone calls to both U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. They are not endorsing in this race. Other top candidates aren't as well. So he had to scrouge a bit to find those endorsements he put out this afternoon.

GOLODRYGA: And, Ron, in our last segment with Harry Litman, does a potentially indicted former president have any impact, positive or negative, for him, whether it's in Iowa or New Hampshire?

BROWNSTEIN: I think the calculation has changed among Republicans.

I think that a year ago, I think there was a broad sense, if he was indicted, it might actually benefit him in the context of a Republican primary and a kind of rally around the flag, he's being persecuted by the Deep State and all of that.

I think after the mid-term election, it's changed somewhat. The principal argument against Trump, as Jeff has been explaining, among Republican voters is not they dislike his policies.

But they view him as unelectable, in part, because of how disappointing the results in the midterms for Republicans for the many candidates Trump endorsed.

I think, in that context, an indictment now, rather being evidence of persecution, many Republicans might view it as evidence of the difficulty of electing Trump.

You have to say the essence of DeSantis' campaign, he's offering voters Trumpism without Trump. He's basically saying, I will be as fierce a cultural warrior as Donald Trump is and won't be under threat of indictment for paying hush money to a porn star.

That may be the sweet spot in the Republican primary. But it might be too close to Trump himself in terms of what he's talking about in terms of censorship, et cetera, to consolidate that white-collar side of the party that's more dubious to Trump.

Much less if he gets to the general election and he wins back the white-collar suburbs Republicans need in the key states.

GOLODRYGA: And DeSantis is very popular there, but he's not nationally tested, whereas Trump, as we know, is.

Jeff Zeleny and Ron Brownstein, thank you.

BERMAN: So our banking system is safe. That is the message from President Biden to all Americans. The White House stepping in after two banks collapsed in the span of 48 hours. We'll tell you what comes next.



BERMAN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claims his military is inflicting heavy losses on the Russian in the battle for the city of Bakhmut. A Ukrainian deputy commander says his troops are literally jump feet

first into trenches where Russia forces have dug in to knock them out.

GOLODRYGA: The Ukrainian military spokesman says that hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed and hundreds more wounded.

The founder of the Wagner mercenary group, which has been at the forefront of the fighting, admitted the situation is very difficult.

So let's talk about this with retired U.S. Army Colonel Peter Mansoor.

Colonel, good to see you.

Here we have a difference in opinion from the Pentagon versus Ukrainian military officials. The Pentagon is saying Ukraine, retaining Bakhmut for now, is not really a tactical win for them and not an necessity. President Zelenskyy saying the opposite.

At what point does the cost benefit analysis change here in terms of just the amount of manpower and ammunition Ukraine is losing in order to keep hold of Bakhmut?

COL. PETER MANSOOR, U.S. ARMY, RETIRED: Ukraine cannot get into a war of attrition and win, and this is what the Pentagon is calculating.

Bakhmut has become a symbol for Ukraine, a symbol of resistance to Russians. And so the Ukrainian president wants to maintain his foothold there.

But at some point, the troops he's losing, the amount of ammunition they're expending is going to be counterproductive and they're going to have to drawback to more defensible terrain.

BERMAN: Where do you think, Colonel, that Ukraine will take the fight to the Russians next? And how do you think what happens in Bakhmut might impact that?

MANSOOR: It's going to take some time to integrate all the equipment that the West has given Ukraine, especially the main battle tanks, which are really essential to creating combined arms formations that can conduct mobile offensive armored warfare.

But once they do that, later this summer, perhaps, then they'll be used in an offensive to regain territory.

My guess is they want to use it against more vulnerable parts of the Russian alliance, which would be in the south, somewhere between Kherson and the Donbass region, the area the Russians only recently acquired and isn't as well fortified.

In terms of Bakhmut, it doesn't really have a role to play necessarily in how the war is going to play out going forward.

This is really an infantry artillery battle. And Ukraine, if it's going to retain its territory, is going to need to conduct much more fast-moving mobile offensive armored operations. GOLODRYGA: You know, I was listening to one military expert who

returned from the front lines in Bakhmut. And said it this way. He said this has turned into a war of the mobilized and reserved officers.

Meaning both sides, at this point, over one year in, have lost their best trained troops.


Given that and given the anticipated spring offensive that we're expecting to see in the next month or two from Ukrainians, how does that analysis impact what we can see on the battlefield?

MANSOOR: Yes, so the Russian army, its mobilization has been less than impressive.

It's using a lot of the Wagner Group mercenaries in the battle for Bakhmut. Perhaps 80 percent of them are convicts that have been promised money and commutation of their sentences to fight.

And they're being killed in vast numbers because they're not being really very well trained or equipped.

I think Ukraine has the better of it in this regard. Their population is much more motivated to fight and to keep their freedom. And they're getting a higher quality of officer to join.

And I'm not sure that Ukraine has lost all the best of its Officer Corp yet. They're still sending battalions to Germany to get trained by U.S. Army forces there.

So I think we're going to see a very high-quality force emerge once these armored elements are created and integrated into the Ukrainian structure.

BERMAN: You mentioned the Wagner Group there. You both did. What has been learned, do you think, about how the Russians have been trying to fight this war?

There's been some dissension really between the Wagner Group and the proper military in Russia.

MANSOOR: Yes, you could view the Wagner Group sort of as the S.S. of Russia, as the S.S. was sort of a private militia beholden to Hitler. The Wagner group is sort of the same thing to Putin. Maybe without all the ideological bent, however.

It is not particularly all that effective when you integrate these convicts into it. It was a very small group that did operations in Syria and elsewhere.

And it brought some combat capability into the Ukraine war. But it's taking large casualties, and it's really hard to replace those.

So I'm not sure that Wagner Group is going to be all that useful once it's been killed off in the battles that are raging now around Bakhmut.

BERMAN: Retired Colonel Peter Mansoor, great to have you on this afternoon. Thanks so much.

GOLODRYGA: House Republicans make their biggest move yet as they ramp up their investigation into Hunter Biden. We'll have CNN's new reporting ahead.