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Cohen and Manafort Fallout Impacting Midterm Strategy; Feds Gave Immunity to National Enquirer Boss in Cohen Probe. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:30:00] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: On the impeachment issue, look, we saw it loud and clear yesterday in both chambers. In the Senate, not a single Democrat I talked to really wanted to touch the issue. In the House, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader sending a letter to her colleagues making clear there are other issues they want to focus on.

Oversight check on the president, absolutely. But Impeachment right now, the view on the Democratic side is that is a politically dangerous idea. Talk about oversight, talk about other things like health care. Impeachment, off the table right now.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Phil, we just got some news from the Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Grassley. What are you hearing from Senator Grassley?

MATTINGLY: What we are told right now is at least on the staff level, the Judiciary Committee has reached out to Michael Cohen and his lawyer Lanny Davis to kind of get an early read on what Michael Cohen pled to just a couple days ago. Basically, the decision being whether or not the Judiciary Committee is going to look into that.

Here's why that's really interesting. When you talk to Republicans on Capitol Hill, and I guess we've seen this over the course of the last 24 hours, they're already very ready to move on from this issue. If a Republican-led committee dug into what happened, obviously the clear implication of the president here, that would make this issue very, very relevant in the weeks and months ahead.

But I do also think that it's noteworthy coming from Chuck Grassley. Somebody for whom oversight has always been a big thing for him. It's always been a big focus for him. Not necessarily always towing the party line.

It'll be interesting to see where this goes from here. Initial step is what we're told at this moment. But if this escalates, this will certainly be something to keep an eye on. As you noted, just 77 days away from the midterms. This would be a major focus on Capitol Hill if there were anything of the sort of hearings or private interviews.

HENDERSON: (INAUDIBLE), we're all counting. Phil, thanks for that report. Rachael, I'm going to start with you because you've got some great reporting on this whole impeachment talk or lack thereof and Pelosi's role in it as well. Quoting from your story that was in Politico, you say a House Democrat, closer leadership put it bluntly, the voters don't want to talk about impeachment the right now. You don't want to poke the bear in a way that he's able to come back even stronger.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes, so interesting. At the exact moment that there was news breaking that Cohen was going to do this big plea deal, Pelosi was on a call with the Democrats who are back home in their districts saying do not talk about impeachment. Frame it as corruption.

HENDERSON: Right.

BADE: (INAUDIBLE) the Republicans are, you know, not holding the president accountable on ethical issues but do not talk about impeachment. And there's just this concern that it's going to backfire and they're going to not be able to take back the House this fall.

It seems like Republicans right now are talking about this more than Democrats are. It's almost like the White House is daring them to make this the issue. They want them to think it will help Republicans. And Democrats, it sounds like they agree with them right now, so they're trying to avoid it.

HENDERSON: And there is Trump on impeachment speaking to Republicans who want to talk about impeachment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you know, I guess it says something like high crimes and all. I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job.

I'll tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor. Because without this thinking, you would see numbers that you wouldn't believe in reverse.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENDERSON: I think the economy was pretty good when President Clinton was impeached.

PERRY BACON, SENIOR WRITER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: We didn't (INAUDIBLE). We looked at 811 candidates who ran for House, Senate, governor, on their websites. Democrats. Did they mention impeachment? One. One of 811.

HENDERSON: And who is that one?

BACON: He was from New Jersey. He's a House (INAUDIBLE). He lost.

So this is an analysis like the Democrats have never been talking about impeachment. Pelosi remember in 2006 also said we're not going to impeach. Then she didn't impeach. So it's like -- so I think it's like at this point, we're just watching a Republican talking point that is not emerging to much more.

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Although I will say, Kevin de Leon who's the progressive Democrat challenging Diane Feinstein for the Senate race in California, two Democrats going against each other. He doesn't have a real chance in that seat. But he did send out a fundraising e-mail yesterday, I believe, where the subject line was impeach, impeach, impeach.

Now, again, he's not exactly in striking distance of Diane Feinstein, but I think he does represent a kind of what's going on in the liberal grassroots within the Democratic Party, the sort of urge to get something. And that's what Pelosi and the establishment is really trying to placate. I think you can read for instance the push by Chuck Schumer to delay the Kavanaugh hearings because of these revelations. So it's almost a misdirection or a mis -- or a redirection, rather, of that sort of frustration and anger.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: And certainly Republicans certainly see impeachment as a way to rally their base against a year of Democratic enthusiasm. You're seeing that from a variety of places. Steve Bannon, you know, the former Trump adviser, has a group that he is -- and they're doing a (INAUDIBLE) things. They're talking a lot about impeachment, framing this as a -- it's a referendum on the president and impeachment.

HENDERSON: Yes. If you don't go for Republicans, this president could go down.

And one of the things we've seen as well from Republican leadership, Rachael, this idea that if you're in a district that isn't so friendly to Trump, you might want to criticize this president.

[12:35:06] This was Tom Cole of Oklahoma. He said, so my advice to any candidate would be keep your powder dry and don't rush to attack or defend anybody because you don't -- you just don't know enough to have a reaction that you can still defend three months from now. Again, on that theme of nobody knows where this is going.

BADE: Yes, leadership's message to the rank and file has always been, you do you, you know your district. If you need to distance yourself from Trump, do it. Be careful. Don't make it personal if you have to do it then quickly pivot to policy.

Just to go back to Democrats real quick. This issue of impeachment is really going to tear them apart if they take the House. And that's because I was talking to a few Democrats who weren't just saying, we don't want to talk about this now because of the midterms, maybe we don't want to talk about this at all because --

HENDERSON: Because maybe it emboldens him for 2020.

BADE: Exactly. And that if we do impeach the president, then perhaps a Democrat can't beat him. And so, they're really going to be fighting tooth and nail because there are some that feel like they have a moral imperative to do this. Al Green I spoke to yesterday. He said, we have to do this.

HENDERSON: And this is where the Democratic base is.

WARREN: The dog could catch the car.

HENDERSON: We'll have to leave it there.

There's a big GOP dinner with President Trump tomorrow in Ohio, but guess who won't be attending. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:40:45] HENDERSON: Topping our political radar today, President Trump in Ohio tomorrow for a big Republican dinner, but the guest list is missing one important name. You guessed it. It's the state's Republican Governor John Kasich. Kasich confirming to CNN this morning that he doesn't plan to show up. Kasich, of course, ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary and has been a pretty frequent critic of the president since he took office.

The Trump administration this morning pushing back on a New York Times report that says it wants to use federal money to finance gun purchases for teachers. An administration official tells CNN the idea didn't start with Secretary Betsy DeVos or the Department of Education, but the department did research the plan's viability. In a statement to CNN, Spokeswoman Liz Hill says the department doesn't issue opinions on hypothetical scenarios.

An update to a story from yesterday. CNN reported that the Democratic National Committee called the FBI, a source said, over worries about a sophisticated cyber attack. Today the Democratic Party of Michigan says it's responsible in what officials called a misstep. Michigan Democrats said one of its partners set off trip wires and prompted the scare when it running cyber security tests.

Two months after the president said the North Korea nuclear threat is over, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed back to Pyongyang for more negotiations. Pompeo announced this morning he'll travel there next week with a new special envoy.

Up next, some breaking news on the Michael Cohen case. Details next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:46:34] HENDERSON: Breaking news just coming across now from the Wall Street Journal. Federal prosecutors granted immunity to David Pecker, the CEO of the National Enquirer and a long-time friend of the president in the southern district of New York probe of Michael Cohen. Pecker, according to the journal, met with prosecutors to describe Cohen's involvement in hush money deals he brokered ahead of the 2016 election.

A real pivotal figure here in what happened. He basically was in charge of this whole catch and release scheme where there would be stories about allegations involving Trump and women. They would purchase the stories and essentially bury them. Where does this take us? What do you make of this latest news?

WARREN: I mean, you've got now another witness who we assume or we think may very well possibly corroborate what Michael Cohen told prosecutors. It's problematic.

I keep going back, though, to this idea that I think what it really reveals is almost a political crime rather than -- that's more -- maybe more important. You have a lot of people at this time at the end of the 2016 election cycle, the "Access Hollywood" video comes out. A lot of Republicans are bailing.

Had these stories come out, that Cohen now alleges Trump was involve in trying to shut down, that changes a whole lot of things. And a lot of Republicans sort of ended up staying on team Trump because these stories did not come out, I think.

HENDERSON: And Catherine, another theme here, this was a friend of the president, now cooperating with authorities.

LUCEY: I mean, this is potentially very significant. I mean, this is another person who can shed light on these arrangements, these catch and release deals, the hush money deals that Michael Cohen has been talking about.

It also -- I was talking to a person in Trump land this week who was saying that when this news broke about the Cohen deal, they were surprised. People weren't expecting this. And it just really sort of reinforced for them that none of this is ending any time soon. You know, people thought maybe things would be winding down. And really, it's not ending and no one knows where it's going.

WARREN: Small number of people --

BACON: They have no control over it, and it's not just Mueller now. It's also this New York southern district, which is doing a lot of breaking -- breaking a lot of news here too. And I think that's a problem too now. It's like inspiring Mueller (INAUDIBLE) even to this point.

And I think that's going to be -- it's like the tentacles are wider than I expected. Yes.

HENDERSON: And I imagine that maybe we'll hear from Trump on this. And we've seen how he's reacted to when his other friends and people in his orbit have flipped.

BADE: Yes, and David Pecker has been very close with the president for a long time. And you know, just this morning he's talking about how people who flip, they should be charged. They're the ones who should be in trouble.

So, yes, that's going to certainly drive a wedge in that relationship. The president is losing friends, losing allies one at a time as they come forward and talk to investigators. And it's just bolstering Robert Mueller's case, and it's going to bolster the Democrats in Congress if they take over and try to impeach the president. HENDERSON: And Catherine, what do you imagine? I mean, we saw sort of the president late, up at night, 1:00 a.m., no collusion, this is a witch hunt. How does he spin this one?

LUCEY: I think we'll have to see, obviously, what he says. Usually he doesn't take too long to turn to Twitter. But I mean, he -- with Cohen, we've seen frustration privately. We know he's upset.

And as we've been talking about on the show, the idea of someone turning on him or disloyalty is very upsetting. So we could see him address that. He may also return to this argument that -- he's arguing this didn't have anything to do with me.

[12:50:03] And ultimately, he keeps coming back to the idea that the Russia investigation thus far has not -- he's arguing that the investigation has not shown anything. Of course, that investigation continues. And we still have to say --

BADE: And we don't know what Mueller has.

LUCEY: Right. We don't know what David Pecker said too.

BADE: (INAUDIBLE) he was upset with the president, with -- just with Michael Cohen because obviously depending on what he said.

BACON: Interesting. Sarah in the briefing room yesterday kept saying no charges have been filed against the president. That's a very narrow explanation. And also, we don't know if DOJ feels the charges can be filed against the president's critics. That doesn't really tell you anything.

HENDERSON: And the other thing here is, do we expect any sense of -- do people in Congress -- I mean, is this sort of we heard from them already. I mean, what's your sense there?

WARREN: Yes. I mean, look, again, this goes to the fact that a lot of these Republicans are having to hold their fire, they're having to sort of hold back because they don't know what's going to come.

I mean, it comes back to this thing that you've got David Pecker, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump. Are these three the only people -- maybe there was another campaign official possibly who knew about this? There was a lot of people who sort of put their political careers on the line for not just the Trump campaign but the Trump presidency who are outs of the loop on what exactly happened. I think that's got to be really concerning for them.

HENDERSON: And under the theme, there's a Trump tweet for everything. Here he is in July of 2013 saying, "Time magazine should definitely pick David Pecker to run things over there. He'd make it exciting and win awards."

WARREN: It would be exciting.

HENDERSON: Yes. It would be exciting indeed. It might be a lot like the National Enquirer. We'll have to wait and see what Trump -- what his reaction is here.

But this file is under the theme of nobody knows. And Trump certainly doesn't know at all. And you can tell I think from the White House, Catherine, there is a lot of nervousness there. As much as you might hear Rudy Giuliani, for instance, say, oh, no, everything is fine.

LUCEY: No, there's anxiety -- I mean, there is also (INAUDIBLE) people are almost a little bit numb to, you know, sort of story after story after story and are trying to put soldier through this. But there's certainly anxiety.

HENDERSON: And so just a reminder what Cohen actually said in court as to count number seven or on -- on or about the summer of 2016, in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office, that of course is Trump, I am the CEO of a media company at the request of the candidate, work together to keep an individual with information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign from publicly disclosing this information. After a number of discussions, we eventually accomplished the goal by the media company entering into a contract with the individual under which she received compensation of $150,000. Of course he's speaking of Karen McDougal.

WARREN: Right. I mean, that we're all sort of focused on the question of, does this lead to impeachment or criminal charges against the president, but -- I mean, there are going to be -- there is a likelihood there could be political consequences to all of this as well.

Are Republicans really going to want to deal with this for another two, four, or potentially six years? That's a question that I think a lot of Republicans are going to be asking as well.

HENDERSON: Rachael (INAUDIBLE)?

BADE: I think it's very significant that Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to speak to Michael Cohen's lawyer. Because a lot of the Republicans on the Hill have been silent when it comes to this issue. Yes, they're talking about Russia. They're countering on Russia and collusion and the allegations of collusion. But they don't want to talk about hush payments to women.

And of course, we saw a statement yesterday by Trey Gowdy, who's the oversight chairman in the House, saying this is not Congress' role. This is federal prosecutors' role. You know, basically, we're not going to touch this.

So the fact that Chuck Grassley, who's long been this oversight bull, who's gone after both parties, he wants to talk to Michael Cohen's lawyer. It's significant. Maybe they look into this.

HENDERSON: And we're going to replay the taped conversation where Cohen is talking to Trump about David Pecker.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL COHEN, TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David so that I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up on -- I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with funding.

Yes. And it's -- all the stuff. All the stuff because, you know, you never know that company. You never know what he's (INAUDIBLE).

Correct. So I'm all over that. And I spoke to Allen about it. When it comes time for the financing, which will be --

TRUMP: Listen, what financing?

COHEN: Well, I'll have to pay.

TRUMP: I'll pay the cash.

COHEN: No, no, no. I got -- no, no, no.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

HENDERSON: What's always interesting to me about this tape is the calmness with which they're discussing this. And here on this tape, Trump essentially saying what if something happens to David Pecker? We want to make sure that we have all the kind of rights there, you know, or whatever is been transferred to David Pecker, we want to have rights.

BACON: It's interesting. In the last week, you'd have to say the system is working on some level. Like Trump may not believe in the rule of law in some ways based on what I heard today, but, you know, U.S. attorneys and so on are prosecuting his friends.

[12:55:08] His friends are saying, I don't really want to go to jail, so I'm going to be honest. And I think it's really a testament to how the system is working (INAUDIBLE).

HENDERSON: And it's hard to kind of claim it's all the deep state when so much is happening here.

Thanks, all of you.

Thanks for joining us on the INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here tomorrow. Wolf starts after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much --