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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Michael Cohen Set to Be Indicted?; Trump Attorney Argues 'Truth Isn't Truth'; White House Counsel Speaking to Robert Muelle; Nixon White House Lawyer Responds to Trump Calling him a "Rat". Aired 4- 4:30p ET
Aired August 20, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: First lady Melania Trump says kids know more than grownups about the perils of social media.
That is some high-level trolling there.
THE LEAD starts right now.
President Trump raging and rattled after learning that the White House counsel talked to Robert Mueller's team for 30 hours, and no one in the West Wing is quite sure what he said.
He cooperated with prosecutors to expose Watergate, but to President Trump, that means he's a -- quote -- "rat." Nixon White House lawyer John Dean here to respond.
Plus, well, this is awkward. Just moments ago, President Trump introduced a hero Border Patrol agent by saying this:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Come here. You're not nervous, are you? Speaks perfect English.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Yes. He speaks perfect English.
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We begin today with the politics lead.
President Trump today, as is his wont, lashing out on Twitter as his lawyer spins an alternate reality, this as we're approaching a critical time, as the walls seem to be closing in on several of the president's close associates.
A jury is in its third day of deliberations in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in the case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. In New York, the president's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, could be facing criminal charges any day now, sources tell CNN.
Now, for months, if not years, the president has been offering his view of what can charitably be called a different reality. You will recall he and his inner circle, for instance, initially denied any contact with Russians.
Well, today, they say that contact was fine and perfectly legal.
Now, whether you want to call it Orwellian, or the Upside Down or through the looking glass, this is a place where facts are not facts. And the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
And the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani just offered the latest iteration of this yesterday when speaking about whether President Trump will talk to special counsel Mueller.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When you tell me that he should testify because he's going to tell the truth and he shouldn't worry, well, that's so silly, because it's somebody's version of the truth, not the truth.
He didn't have a conversation about...
CHUCK TODD, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Truth is truth. I don't mean to go like...
GIULIANI: No, it isn't truth. Truth isn't truth.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: "Truth isn't truth," a real statement made by President Trump's attorney.
Now, Giuliani was likely trying to say that the version of the truth offered by James Comey that would likely be believed by the special counsel, that doesn't square with the president's version. The truth as the special counsel sees it is not so. That's what he was trying to say. But that's not what he said.
He said truth isn't truth, which would be more shocking if this had been the first time we heard something like it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: Our press secretary gave alternative facts.
JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Over time, facts develop.
(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Statements like this pop out when all the president's men and all the president's women try to explain and justify how and why President Trump is so untethered to demonstrable facts, the same president who, according to "The Washington Post," averages more than seven false or misleading claims every day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Just stick with us. Don't believe that crap you see from these people, the fake news. Just remember what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now, what the president is seeing and what the president's reading, which is happening, has led to him launching more attacks against Robert Mueller, whom the president today called disgraced and discredited in quite an escalation of rhetoric.
This coming after the stunning news broken by "The New York Times" that White House counsel Don McGahn has been cooperating extensively with Bob Mueller and that the president's personal legal team does not even know everything that McGahn has shared, according to a source telling CNN.
CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins now picks up our coverage.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump rattled today after learning that White House counsel Don McGahn spoke with investigators from the special counsel's office for more than 30 hours, but never provided a full readout of what he told them.
Trump attempting to downplay the revelation on Twitter, noting he approved the sit-down, as he lashed out at Robert Mueller for questioning McGahn for so long, writing: "Anybody needing that much time when they know there is no Russian collusion is just someone looking for trouble."
Sources tell CNN Trump wasn't aware of just how long McGahn's interviews lasted until "The New York Times" published a report this weekend detailing his extensive cooperation.
While publicly blaming Mueller, Trump privately complaining to allies that the report made him look weak. McGahn is at the center of several incidents Mueller is examining, including Trump's attempt to fire the special counsel last summer.
Trump has often blurred the line on what McGahn's role is, believing at times that he's representing him, when really he's representing the presidency.
[16:05:06] Asked today if the meetings were a mistake, McGahn staying silent.
QUESTION: Mr. McGahn, was it a mistake to have you speak without limits to special counsel Mueller?
COLLINS: The president's agitation growing as his legal team is scrambling to figure out what McGahn said, since he was never asked for a full debrief.
Rudy Giuliani admitting he's relying on what Trump's former attorney John Dowd told him.
GIULIANI: I'll use his words, rather than mine, that McGahn was a strong witness for the president. So I don't need to know much more about that.
COLLINS: But Dowd resigned from the legal team five months ago.
Chris Christie blasting the decision to allow McGahn to sit down with the special counsel voluntarily.
CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: This shows what a C- level legal team the president had at the beginning in Ty Cobb and John Dowd.
Once you waive that privilege, you turn over all those documents, Don McGahn has no choice then but to go in and answer everything, every question they can ask him. And this is not in the president's interests.
COLLINS: Now, Jake, in light of this new reporting from the -- about Don McGahn, the White House is trying to portray his relationship with President Trump as ironclad, saying that they have a great relationship, when the truth is that it is much more tortured than that.
And these are two men who have gone months without meeting one-on-one at times, weeks without speaking. And though their relationship has improved since there's been an opening on the Supreme Court, we are seeing with this statement saying that they have a great relationship, a statement we're told President Trump dictated to Sarah Sanders to send to reporters, we see how the White House is trying to get on top of this narrative.
TAPPER: And we also know that not everything this White House says is accurate.
Let's talk about it with the experts here.
Let me start with you. I want to read a key question of "The New York Times"' reporting. It says -- quote -- "Mr. McGahn and his lawyer could not understand why Mr. Trump was so willing to allow Mr. McGahn to speak freely to the special counsel and feared Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction, according to people close to him."
That's pretty stunning. And it certainly undermines the idea that this was all being done in partnership with President Trump.
A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: Well, as a former prosecutor from the Southern District, and a 28-year white- collar criminal defense lawyer, it's beyond stunning. It's just unbelievable. It is fundamentally just wrong.
I could see where the setup would be a la Dean from the Nixon years. But the reality is that when you go in and you don't exercise privilege, you're stuck with waiving that privilege.
But, secondly, what's even more unbelievable is that the lawyers and McGahn have not shared, if that story is correct, have not shared with White House counsel, private counsel and others what questions were asked, what documents were produced and what were they talking about, because McGahn is even more important than Cohen in the sense that McGahn can give context, timing, thoughts, writings, musings of Donald Trump.
He can give to him corruptible intent, which is the only reason why the -- Mueller wants to interview the president. McGahn has the insight and as general counsel, he has those insights. That's pretty powerful, and I'm not sure anyone, whether it's Donald Trump or his lawyers, would want him in there sharing that.
TAPPER: And, Amanda, if the president were truly nonchalant about this, then he probably wouldn't have spent the last few days on Twitter attacking Bob Mueller, attacking the investigators as angry thugs.
I mean, that doesn't sound like somebody copacetic with all that.
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I think you have to look this situation and wonder if they are in way over their heads.
There are some people like the editorial board of "The Wall Street Journal" that want to give Trump a lot of credit for waiving executive privilege for Don McGahn, but at the same time, if you're going to do that, why is there not someone keeping tabs on him and asking for the debriefing?
So that's very confused to me. And this whole idea of executive privilege, it's not like it came out of nowhere. If you remember, Jeff Sessions, when he went to the Hill, he was preemptively invoking executive privilege for the president when he was asked about the firing of James Comey, suggesting, well, he may want to cover this conversation later, so I'm not going to talk about it.
And somehow they let down Don McGahn go freely? That is mind- boggling.
TAPPER: And also remember, Perry, it was last June -- June 2017 -- yes, 2017 -- when "The New York Times" reported that McGahn received an order to fire Mueller and he refused to carry it out, saying -- suggesting that he would quit before doing that.
PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: Right.
That is the thing, is McGahn has been involved in a lot of the key moments in the administration, particularly that moment in which you were talking about obstruction of justice initially.
That firing of Comey potentially has a lot to do with like what happened afterwards. So I do think he's a potentially very important witness.
And what he said was really important. We should emphasize we have no idea what he said. He could have been favorable to the president. We just don't know. So that's one of my questions of story is, where did it come from, was it leaked by McGahn's allies on some level and what did he actually testify?
We obviously don't know the answer to it.
TAPPER: And we're told that McGahn's attorney is saying that the White House is fine with this and he didn't say anything that would incriminate the president.
But the truth of the matter is, none of us, everybody at this table and President Trump, none of us has any idea.
COLLINS: Yes, that's what they're hoping.
They actually could have learned a lot of things that they would not have learned if they had not sat down with Don McGahn for 30 hours, which is an incredibly long amount of -- period of time for the White House counsel to sit down with them.
So they're saying, oh, we're not worried about anything he said. We are sure that he was there as a good witness for the president. That's what they're saying.
But Rudy Giuliani is saying that he only has secondhand information about what he said. He's getting that from John Dowd, the president's former attorney who left five months ago. So they don't have really any kind of read on what it was he said, even though he was there for those key events, like Perry was saying, so there's certainly been scrambling since this came out.
And that's what our new reporting shows. The president is really bothered by this notion that he doesn't know what Don McGahn told them, and that no one asked him and sat down and said, every question, what did they say to you? Here's every detail, that what did they say?
TAPPER: Yes. And, of course, the White House denies it. But as we also know, and
we have come to learn, this White House or President Trump operates in his own version of reality, and the people around him try to share that version of reality or justify it.
Let's turn to Rudy Giuliani talking about truth and facts, just the latest version of all the president's spin.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GIULIANI: I don't even know if they knew she was in Russian at the time. All they knew is that a woman with a Russian name wanted to meet with them. They didn't know she was -- represented the Russian government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So that is Rudy Giuliani saying that they didn't even know that she was Russian at the time.
But Giuliani says that, and we know it's not accurate, because from the e-mails released by Donald Trump Jr., it's simply not true. I mean, they -- she's identified as a Russian lawyer.
COLLINS: It's completely not true. They say on behalf of the Russian government's efforts to help President Trump. That is in the e-mail laid out.
We all read the e-mail, so we saw it ourselves. But this is another instance of Rudy Giuliani trying to shape the narrative, trying to change what their perception out of it is, because they believe they want to sway the public opinion of what really happened.
So we're seeing them muddy the facts here and changing things that we simply know aren't true and saying it's something different.
CARPENTER: I just there there's a valid question when it comes to Rudy Giuliani. Is he lying straight up, or he just not bothering to learn the case?
I mean, you can look at the e-mails that were sent from Rob Goldstone to Don Jr. and he says, on national television, well, this wasn't a meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. I wish someone would show him the e-mail. Sir,have you never read this information? Or are you lying?
TAPPER: It's not a crime to lie to the American people or to lie to the American press.
But could this be used by Bob Mueller to prove nefarious intent?
BOLDEN: Persuasive evidence, absolutely.
And you stack it and stack it and stack it against the other side. But here's the deal with Rudolph Giuliani. He hasn't read the case. He hasn't read the documents, but they're not preparing for a legal defense. They're preparing for a political attack back on the Mueller report because they know that they can only go to the House and Senate.
That's shortsighted, though, for this reason. The midterms are coming up. If the House goes to the Democrats and the Senate goes to the Democrats, everything changes. And I mean legally, politically, everything changes, whether he gets impeached or not.
So they have got a political response and they can lie all they want, but the reality is, if politics change and those houses change, then you could be looking at impeachment or beyond.
TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.
We have a lot more to talk about.
He's the man whose Watergate testimony helped bring down President Nixon.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN DEAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now President Trump is calling him a rat.
John Dean joins us to respond next.
Then, President Trump's former fixer could be facing criminal charges any day. Could this spell trouble for the president?
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[16:17:35] JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: It's going to be my word against one man's word. It's going to be my word against two men. It's going to be my word against three men and probably in some cases, it's going to be my word against four men.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: That was former Nixon White House counsel John Dean in 1973 after initially participating in the Watergate scandal, his cooperation with investigators ultimately helped expose it.
Now, some four decades later, the man who now has Dean's former job, White House counsel, Don McGahn, has cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller, with "The New York Times" reporting, quote, worried that Mr. Trump would ultimately blamed him in the inquiry, Mr. McGahn told people he was determined to avoid the fate of the White House counsel for President Nixon, John Dean, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.
To this, President Trump took to Twitter and denied that McGahn was being, quote, a John Dean-type of rat.
And John Dean joins me now.
Mr. Dean, your reaction to President Trump insisting that McGahn is not being a, quote, rat like you were.
DEAN: Well, I'm not surprised. He thrives on insulting people in situations. So, this was typical Trump. He also evidences he doesn't really understand what happened back then.
TAPPER: Well, how do you see your role? I mean, obviously, you don't see yourself as a rat.
DEAN: Well, what I did -- I tried to internally end the cover-up as the tapes would later show. And when I failed at that, I advised the president that I was going to hire a lawyer and I was going to go see the prosecutors and stop the cover-up. So, they were very aware of the fact I was going to do that.
In fact, their tapes were Ehrlichman is saying the smartest thing Dean can do is go down and appear to cooperate with the prosecutors. He didn't realize I was going to tell the truth.
TAPPER: Well, that's the other thing is that I have seen a lot of historians on social media noting that it's unusual that President Trump believes that you are the villain of the Watergate story, at least based on that tweet.
DEAN: Well, exactly. I didn't snitch. I advised them what I was going to do. I did that and to encourage them to do likewise, we had to end this cover-up. That it was going to be a cancer on the presidency. I had told the president that.
So, I failed. The cover-up would go on. And Nixon would, of course, fire Haldeman and Ehrlichman, my superiors, and myself as he tried to accomplish the impossible, which was to get through what he'd done.
[16:20:03] TAPPER: McGahn was not on the campaign. So, presumably, Mueller is seeking information from him not about Russia but about potential obstruction of justice charges and he might be in a position to know a lot being the White House counsel.
DEAN: I think he is in a position. That's -- when I responded to Trump's tweet, I said that he clearly didn't understand what was going on, that this is an invaluable witness. He's a real time witness.
You can't -- you can infer from that article that he might have been actually testifying at very shortly after the events when they were fresh in his memory, he had knowledge of them. He had been asked to do things that were not proper. He knew why he was being asked. He resisted.
So, this is -- this is pretty important testimony and it's taken Trump 48 hours almost to understand what's going on here.
TAPPER: The president said he allowed McGahn to speak with the Mueller's team and it's true that his initial legal team let it happen. But as somebody who knows how this type of thing works, does three days and 30-plus hours worth of conversation sound like a reason that the president maybe shouldn't be so nonchalant?
DEAN: I think that's a lot of testimony. That's a lot of visiting and that's just the bottom of what they know. It could well have been much more than that. It was appears to have been ongoing. So I don't -- I think Trump has got a real problem here. And I'm not sure how he's going to handle it.
TAPPER: A source told CNN that McGahn did not provide any incriminating information against the president. Obviously, we have no idea what he said. Do you believe that?
DEAN: Well, you know, what's incriminating? It's incriminating sometimes just to provide a timeline which he was in a position to do. It could be incriminating to explain what was happening that didn't appear to be wrongdoing but when you put in it a larger picture it completes parts of a puzzle that the prosecutors couldn't get elsewhere.
So, you know, I don't think we ought to pre-judge what he did or did not do until we know what that is.
TAPPER: And a source also said McGahn's attorney did not give Trump's legal team a full account of what McGahn did tell the special counsel. We're also told the White House never asked. Does that seem fishy that the legal team wouldn't want to know or does this give them the ability to have plausible deniability?
DEAN: I think they were out-lawyered by McGahn's lawyer. Who's a very savvy criminal defense lawyer, knew what he was doing, wasn't going to put his client in jeopardy with his colleagues. And they just did what they had to do. They answered the questions honestly and I think they probably caused the Trump White House a lot of trouble.
TAPPER: One other story related to Trump but not related to Mueller. You confirmed that you have been talking to Michael Cohen's attorney Lanny Davis. CNN has learned Cohen could face bank fraud charges soon. This was the president's former fixer.
Do you get the sense that Cohen could be close to telling his truth to prosecutors and making a deal, causing some trouble for President Trump?
DEAN: Well, I've never talked to Cohen himself. I've only talked to Lanny Davis, who I have known for years, and he was just been probing me on how Watergate unfolded, looking for factual information, not for legal advice for anything of that nature. Rather, just to understand that history and the parallels that exist with my situation and potentially exist with his client.
TAPPER: Well, he should pick up a copy of your book "Blind Ambition." John Dean, former White House counsel in the Nixon administration,
good to see you, sir. Thanks for joining us.
DEAN: Thank you, Jake.
TAPPER: President Trump invites a border patrol agent to the microphone but only after it's made clear that the agent speaks perfect English. Why would the president feel the need to say that? Stay with us.
[16:28:31] TAPPER: Kind of an awkward moment by the president in the last hour at the White House. He was speaking at an event to honor immigration officials. Take a listen to his comments when he called up a border patrol agent to the podium.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Adrian, come here. I want to ask you a question. So -- how did you -- come here. You're not nervous, right? He speaks perfect English. Come here. I want to ask you about that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Speaks perfect English.
Perry, this seems like the kind of thing that is an unnecessary thing to say.
BACON: (INAUDIBLE) he's trying to insult her. He's actually trying to praise this person.
BACON: He can't figure out a way not to say something that's vaguely racist. As (INAUDIBLE) audience, two thirds of the Latino population in America was born in the United States. I assume more than 62 percent speaking English. So, the idea that any time you see someone as Latino, he has to announce that they speak English well is distressing and shows he's not learning anything.
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's obviously offensive. But I think a day when Trump says something offensive that doesn't put the White House in a legal jeopardy is probably a pretty good day for the White House communications shop.
TAPPER: Judging the standard.
CARPENTER: Always look at the silver lining here, Jake. TAPPER: Silver linings. It's interesting. Also, just days away,
charges being filed against President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen. We're anticipating.
Cohen has been sending every signal he possibly can to the special counsel that he's prepared to share information and potentially flip on President Trump if he could get a deal.
CNN's Brynn Gingras is following every detail of this case.
REPORTER: Mr. Cohen, how are you doing today?
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: Doing great. Yourself?
BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Federal prosecutors are preparing criminal charges against Michael Cohen, President Trump's former fixer, and those chargers could come in the next 10 days.