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Inside Politics

Manhattan D.A Weighs Indicting Trump; Ex-Cohen Legal Adviser: Cohen "Far From Solid Evidence."; Trump In 2018: Payments To Daniels Didn't Come Out Of Campaign; Haley: Potential Trump Prosecution "More About Revenge"; Russia's Putin, China's Xi Hold 2nd Day Of Talks; NATO Chief: "Signs" Russia Requested Lethal Aid From China; Biden's First Veto Blocks Socially Conscious Investing Ban. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 21, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Is it a when or an if. A New York grand jury weighs whether to indict Donald Trump in a hush money scheme involving Stormy Daniels. Law enforcement in New York and here in Washington on alert now for possible protests. And the former president's allies in Congress are attacking the Manhattan prosecutor.

Plus, a handshake watched around the globe, highly choreographed moments between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin sends a defiant message to the United States and to the west. But so far, no public Chinese commitment to help Putin on the Ukraine battlefield. And President Biden takes out his veto pen for the first time and issue investment rules. Republicans say, prove woke capitalism is infecting America's banks and its government.

Up first for us though, a law-and-order decision with history on the line. Tomorrow the grand jury meets again in Manhattan that may be the day, may be the day New York prosecutors' layout charges against the former president of the United States. But need to emphasize this the timing of everything here remains unclear.

We do know prosecutors believe Donald Trump falsified records and are looking to prove he did it to conceal a crime, campaign finance violations back when he allegedly directed hush money payments to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the closing month of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Today is the day Trump predicted he would be arrested, so far, that has not happened. If and when Mr. Trump is indicted though, we know this, he would be fingerprinted. He will be forced to take a mug shot. He will be arraigned in front of a judge. That would be in a court of law. Mr. Trump started this talk of him being arrested as part of an aggressive effort with the help of key allies to first shape the court of public opinion.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): This was personal money as one tried to hide this was seven years ago statute of limitation. And I think in your heart of hearts, you know, too, that you think this is just political. And I think that's what the rest of the country thinks and we're kind of tired of that.


KING: Begin our coverage this hour in New York with CNN's Kara Scannell. Kara, where are we?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the grand jury met yesterday. You know, we heard them. They heard from a witness the former attorney, from Michael Cohen, Bob Costello. He was in there for about three hours. They are expected to meet again tomorrow. But we are in this wait and see mode, waiting to see if the grand jury request any additional testimony.

They can continue to work as they evaluate the evidence that they have. You know, we're also waiting for a decision from the Manhattan District Attorney's office, will they move forward and seek an indictment of former President Trump in connection with the hush money payment scheme.

Now this grand jury has been working for more than two months. They have heard from so many witnesses around the hush money scheme and it's all gearing up to this ultimate decision by the D.A in what people decide to do.

Now, as we're waiting, we are seeing security preparations starts unfolding in both Washington D.C. and New York after Trump had called for his followers to protest with his anticipation of being indicted. In Washington, we're seeing fences getting put up around the Capitol building, certainly a reminder of January 6 than the preparations that unfolded after that.

And here in New York, around the courthouse where I am, they put up - they put security cameras up on light posts. They've also put barricades up in the perimeter of the courthouse. Although right now, what we're really seeing is just, you know, a scrum of reporters, everyone sitting here waiting and not much activity from any protesters, at least here on the ground, around the courthouse. John?

KING: Kara Scannell, live for us on the ground in New York. Kara, appreciate that reporting. We'll keep in touch throughout the next several important days. Let's get some important legal perspective now from the former federal prosecutor, Renato Mariotti. Renato, grateful for your time.

Today, we're in this never Neverland, we're waiting. The anticipation is in bringing Mr. Costello before the grand jury. Yesterday, the prosecutor was checking an important box, giving somebody who represents Trump perspective, a chance to talk to the grand jury, before we all assume the prosecutor then lays out and asked the grand jury to return an indictment.

Let's listen to Mr. Costello. Yesterday, he says, he went in with one clear mission to tell this grand jury, do not believe the key witness, Michael Cohen.


BOB COSTELLO, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: The only thing I'm doing is trying to tell the truth to the grand jury. Listen, if they want to go after Donald Trump and they have solid evidence, so be it. But Michael Cohen is far from solid evidence. This guy by any prosecutor standard, and I used to be deputy chief of the criminal division in the southern dish to New York, I wouldn't have touched a guy like Michael Cohen, especially if he's convicted perjurer.



KING: So, two questions. Number one, do you agree with those who believe this is your check the box, right? Let somebody wants to make Trump's case come in and attack Michael Cohen. And number two, to his point about the credibility of Michael Cohen. Can you build this case with Michael Cohen as your witness? What else do you need?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, first of all, yes. This under New York law, I think they were smart. And I think they needed to give the defense witness an opportunity to speak to the grand jury. I will say, I think that's a bad strategy on Trump's.

And I really think that they should have saved their witness for trial, putting a witness before the grand jury just gives the prosecutors time to find out what he's going to say, gives them time to question him under oath, really reveal some of their cards early. So, I would have held on to that witness.

But in terms of Michael Cohen, yes, he is a very problematic witness, convicted of lying to Congress, convicted fraudster, also somebody who's made money off of, you know, selling books and podcasts and so forth criticizing Trump.

So, a lot to work with was going, you know, ultimately problematic witnesses can be used and can be rehabilitated by prosecutors, if there's enough other evidence. But I think there are open questions about whether there's sufficient evidence aside from going to carry the weight here for prosecutors.

KING: One of the key questions is, do you have documents to do the paper trail on the financial payments and how they were accounted for? Is it a campaign violation to the Trump organization falsified records? That's one big question. The other question is we talked about Michael Cohen and his credibility issues.

If Donald Trump is charged here, the defendant in the case would be somebody who has a very casual relationship with the truth. As evidence in a trial, how important is it? Or statements like this, the performer pres. the United States has been asked about this many times. Listen?


DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT: later on, I knew, later on. But they didn't come out of campaign. In fact, my first question when I heard about it, it was, did they come out of the campaign? Because that could be a little dicey. And they didn't come out of the campaign and that's big, but they weren't. That's not a - it's not even a campaign violation.


KING: If you were prosecuting the case is what Donald Trump has said about this. And he has shifted his story and moved around a little bit. Is that helpful? Or do you just leave that out?

MARIOTTI: Oh, I think it's very helpful. I would expect prosecutors to use his words. You know, I remember when my former office prosecutor, Rod Blagojevich, they used to videotape every TV appearance he made, and some of those - some of those tidbits made it to the jury. I mean, I think it also highlights for the jury.

I expect Trump would not take the stand that I think the jury is going to then wonder, well, they've heard these inconsistent stories, snippets of statements he's made, you know, why isn't he taking the stand, even though they're going to be instructed not to do so. So yes, I think that's effective. And I think prosecutors will use that against him. I mean, it's fair to say that the former president isn't the ideal client to have the circumstances.

KING: Renato Mariotti, appreciate your insights. As we are all in never Neverland waiting now to see what happens from here. We'll circle back when we know more. Thank you so much. Let's bring the conversation in the room now. With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN's Phil Mattingly, and Punchbowl's Heather Caygle.

What we have is a, I would say uniquely Trumpian moment we're in right now in that. It is the former president, who said, I expect to be indicted and arrested over the weekend. To start this conversation, this is the day where he said, he would be arrested or indicted, it appears that that will not happen today, it's noon 12:08. We'll watch it the day plays out, appears that is not the case.

But one thing he has tried to do in the meantime and listen to several of his allies. Here, these are Trump attorneys saying, there's no case here.


TY COBB, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: Almost everybody who's looked at it and except Alvin Bragg has decided that it doesn't pass the smell test.

Harmeet Dhillon, trump attorney: This is really well past its sell by date a, it does not fly in court. It is frivolous. And what you're looking at really Tucker, is the mother of all election interference here.


KING: Now, Mr. Cobb is still and have no idea what the prosecutors present to the grand jury. But Trump is using the last 72:00 hours to essentially try to - in the court of public opinion to get people to think this is a witch hunt.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This is front running. And to be honest, it was funny when I was not checking my Truth Social account that I don't actually have. But when this was sent around, when he first said it, the first thing I thought it was just having flashbacks to all the times he would tweet things.

When we were on Capitol Hill together, that you're like, wow, he must know something secret here. And then realizing no, he actually doesn't know anything at all. He's just trying to front run something or message something in advance that he knows is coming and trying to lay the groundwork and create the environment in a beneficial manner for him. That's clearly what he was doing.


I think even his lawyers have acknowledged he didn't have any insight intel into what was actually happening here. But this is not an unimportant element of what's about to happen should this actually come to pass. And you've seen it from House Republicans senator retreat in Florida, you've seen it from the presidents - the former president's lawyers.

And how they're trying to create conditions at a moment when they know, the D.A.'s office is not able to come out and try and counter. They sent the letter to House Republicans but try and counter the messaging. They don't have it until an indictment actually drops. And they're trying to use this moment to their advantage.

KING: And in every way, both the court of public opinion and in the limited, more limited jury of Republican primary voters, presidential primary voters. Nikki Haley is a declared candidate. We're waiting for other candidates to get in who are moving around.

She's declared candidate and Donald Trump has forced all the Republicans to state what they believe here. She says, and remember, she's the one arguing, Donald Trump's too old. We need new leadership. We need to move on. But she says here to political prosecution.


NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think, what we know is when you get into political prosecution like this, it's more about revenge than it is about justice.


KING: I mean, that is parroting what Trump wants everybody to say that this is about revenge. This is about him. It's not about the facts, it's not about the law.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. It's a political prosecution. You know, there is this kind of conventional wisdom saying, that this is going to help Donald Trump, it'll rally up his base. And certainly, it reinforces the attachment that folks who really like Trump have for him, but it also people like Kevin McCarthy have come out, and essentially said, you know, this is a political prosecution.

Even somebody like DeSantis, who is, his chief rival at this point, even though he's not a declared candidate. He came out and said, it was a political prosecution too. He did throw a little shade and saying, well, you know, I don't know anything about what it means to pay a, adult film actress a hush money, but you know, that's Donald Trump. So, you know, there is a sort of rallying effect that I think you've seen happen over these last days.

KING: And so, the question is, and I think we need to speak the three words, least spoken in Washington, which is we don't know. We don't know how this is going to play out. In the short term, it appears to help Donald Trump with his 20 something or 30 something, his most fervent base in the Republican Party. He knows how to play grievance politics rally around him.

But Alex Burns at Politico, his headline here, stop overthinking it and indictment would be bad for Trump. If you think about what happened in the 2020 election, or the 2018 midterms, or the 2022 midterms, suburban voters who are open to voting Republican, do not like Donald Trump. So, this may help him in the short term. But is it again, Donald, you're asking - you're bringing up Stormy Daniels character, Donald Trump, his course tone. So, does it long term helped him?

HEATHER CAYGLE, MANAGING EDITOR, PUNCHBOWL NEWS: I mean, let's just look at how he's been reacting over the past few days right, after relatively muted run so far, and kind of going to New Hampshire and Iowa and interacting with voters. Now he's back on Truth Social.

As Phil said, and he's in all caps, urging people to protest and all kinds of stuff, you know. And that's exactly the kind of stuff that turns off these voters. And the question is, can he help himself from continuing to do that? And what are House Republicans and Senate Republicans going to do? Or they're going to keep defending him as he goes further down this hole?

KING: Right. And so, if you - can he help himself. I'm just going to read a few of his words, these four horrible radical left investigations, he says there. Then he goes on to talk about Stormy Daniels. Again, he can have his opinion, he used his derogatory terms about her appearance. That's the stuff that we know has turned voters off for a long time. So, can he help himself? The evidence would be, no, on that one to the point about House Republicans. We'll come back to that a bit later in the program.

Up next for us though, the Putin-Xi summit day two, talk of friendship and cooperation. But at the moment, no evidence China is ready to help Russia with lethal weapons in Ukraine.




KING: Not a new developments out of a high-stakes summit in Moscow. The Russian President Vladimir Putin says his talks with China's Xi Jinping today have been "substantive and frank." There's talk of deeper economic and energy cooperation. China says, Xi hopes to advance a plan for an end to the war in Ukraine. But the United States and its allies are beyond skeptical.

Joining me now to share their reporting and important insights, CNN's Nic Robertson and CNN's Kylie Atwood. Nic, let me start with you. The two leaders, that a lot of handshakes, a lot of pictures that they think just the pictures themselves send a message to the United States and the west. But what do we know about the substance?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. I think for those that are looking at the relationship and trying to figure out how the longevity of the sort of Putin-Xi relationship at the moment. Is this a moment of opportunity for Xi to get some cheap deals on energy and a big market for more Chinese products? Is that what's happening?

I think when they spoke today, they both talked about the longevity of the relationship. Putin talking about building highways across Russia all the way to Asia, the importance of border posts. You know, I think that signaling is really signaling that this is a long-term deal. They both spoke about it.

I think the other thing that really struck me Putin there, said that the British were going to send depleted uranium tank shells to Ukraine and try to equate that with nuclear weapons and saying that Russia would have a response G, that would be no surprise that Russia would kind of ring that bell, normally, but he's doing it right next to Xi, and Xi didn't blush.

So, what's the messaging here? They're in lockstep even when Putin is doing what Xi doesn't want to hear about, which is major potential destabilization. Putin is willing to do it and Xi's willing to listen and not make a comment on it.

KING: And so, Kylie, is the Secretary of State, the Biden national security team track this and other allies in NATO and beyond try to track this. One of the interesting questions is, would we get any hand publicly or in any of the words about whether China would deliver on what the NATO secretary general? Listen, he says it's still on the table that Putin wants more lethal aid on the battlefield. The question is, will Xi say yes?


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: We haven't seen any proof that China is delivering lethal weapons to Russia. But we have seen some signs that this has been a request from Russia. And that this is an issue that is considered in Beijing or by the Chinese authorities.



KING: I don't think there's anybody who thinks Xi would come out and say, yes, I'm going to give this aid. But is there anything in reading between the lines and the readouts or any of the public statements? Or at the state department, did they think Xi has said flatly, no, or still an open question?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think it's still an open question. U.S. officials, similar to what the NATO secretary general said, believe that this is still an option that is on the table. They don't believe that it's gone away. But they don't believe that there has been a formal decision made on it.

I've talked to U.S. officials about it, however, and they do believe that it could be punted this decision, because we see President Xi trying to cast himself as sort of an interlocutor here who's going to bring about peace. And obviously, providing lethal assistance to Russia to be used on the battlefield in Ukraine would actually blunt that reputation that he's trying to build for himself on the world stage.

So, they think it could be punted down the road, but they definitely don't think that is out of the realm of possibility. And of course, this comes as some U.S. officials have sort of been trying to downplay this meeting a little bit with the NSC's John Kirby, calling it this morning, a marriage of convenience.

And talking about the fact that these are two leaders who really just need each other right now, saying that Putin needs Xi because he needs more ammunition on the battlefield, and that Xi needs Putin because he really needs him - needs Russia as a foil against the west.

KING: And Nic, Xi clearly wants to be seen around the world as the alternative if you will to the United States as the leading figure of the big coalitions. And yet, the China says, well, this is a peace mission. He has a peace plan. But if you look at the peace plan, Russia gets to keep giant swaths of Ukraine. Essentially, what Xi is saying is if you want peace, NATO, the United States, and the west have to back off. It's not viable from the US the British the western perspective, the NATO perspective at all, right?

ROBERTSON: Yes. The Ukrainians won't buy into it either. And there's this possibility of a call between Xi and President Zelenskyy. It's hard to imagine how that's going to go. I mean, one of the things that Xi just mentioned there about his peace plan, was trying to sort of mark it as a real deal as something that can really fly.

He said, it holds the U.N Charter. How in Ukraine's eyes, in the United States' eyes and NATO's eyes? Does it hold up - hold the U.N Charter when Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation? So, here's Xi saying this is a good plan to go. And I think the other point that underlines that this is not a plan that's going to fly is that the meeting of minds that you appear to have with Xi and Putin here today.

The deepening and strengthening of relations, that really tells you that he is aligning himself with Russia, he's giving Russia the money, maybe not the weapons, but the money to stay in the fight.

KING: The money to stay in the fight. And again, the partnership matters a lot in Ukraine, matters on just about every other global issue going forward as well. Nic Robertson and Kylie Atwood, grateful for the insights and some important battlefield updates as well. The United States now says it will speed up the delivery of key assets to Ukraine.

First, it will send older M1A1 models of the Abrams tanks instead of the more modern version that would shave months off the previous timeline to get those onto the battlefield. And second, United States also sending more Patriot missile systems to Ukraine faster than expected. The United States crediting Ukrainian soldiers' knowledge of air defense systems with being able to speed up that process. And for us, President Biden issues his first veto. The White House says the president is protecting investment choices, critics say he's pushing a woke agenda.




KING: The first veto of the Biden presidency is now part of a debate about what Republicans called woke capitalism. The president yesterday rejecting a measure that would have banned federal investment managers from considering ESG environmental, social and governance issues when making investment decisions.

The Biden White House says the measure unfairly restricted choices. It's Republican sponsors, say ESG rules are a way of steering money to woke liberal priorities. This woke capitalism argument also a GOP favorite now, when questioned about the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.


SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): They are so given to woke policies in DEI and ESG that they are not watching the books.

REP. JAMES COMER, (R-KY): They were one of the most woke banks in their quest for the ESG top policy.

GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) FLORIDA: They're so concerned with DEI and politics and all kinds of stuff. I think that really diverted from them focusing on their core mission.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Our great reporters back around the table. You wouldn't have so many Republicans and different kinds of Republicans using that argument if they didn't think it was effective with their base. But have they just - what does woke mean now? If everything that goes wrong, traffic is woke, your coffee wasn't hot enough, that's pieces, there's a woke, I mean, that's.

HENDERSON: Yes. You know, I think it's sort of an iteration of politically correct, which used to be a sort of a boogeyman for Republicans. And now it's woke, which of course, is this sort of black vernacular English phrase, it's been around for a really long time.

And so, yes, it's hard to know what they mean other than policies that they don't like. If you look at some of the polling on it and most people seem to think it means being aware of social injustice. And so, I think average Americans think it's probably a good idea to be aware of social injustice. And so, you know, I think this is going to be a big part of 2024 discourse the Republican primary.