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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Did Trump Endanger Democrats By Leaking Afghanistan Trip?; Did Trump Direct Cohen to Lie to Congress?; BuzzFeed: President Trump Directed Michael Cohen to Lie to Congress About Moscow Tower Project. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 18, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

MIKE "KILLER MIKE" RENDER, HOST, "TRIGGER WARNING WITH KILLER MIKE": But I say, if we're going to sell cola, then let these guys produce it. They have produced it, and it's coming to market.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: It's all in his show, "Trigger Warning," on Netflix out today.

I love you, Killer Mike. Thank you so much.

RENDER: Love. Thank you so much.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

RENDER: Absolutely.

BALDWIN: "THE LEAD with JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Three words we have heard a lot today from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill: "if it's true."

THE LEAD starts right now.

Did he do it? That's the question everyone's asking, after BuzzFeed's report claiming that President Trump directed his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, a move, if it's true, that has a few people on Capitol Hill dropping the I-word.

Lies and alleged leaks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropping a big accusation, without any evidence, against the White House, only to be countered by a White House response that's just flat-out false. And, oh, by the way, the government is still closed with no deal in sight.

And plus one? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's wife joins him on a recent Middle East trip and raises eyebrows with what she did and who she did not meet with.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead, Democrats in Congress today vowing to get to the bottom of a new allegation related to the Russia investigation. Congressman Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, going so far as to declare -- quote -- "If the BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached."

The BuzzFeed story cites two law enforcement sources who say that former Trump fixer Michael Cohen told special counsel Robert Mueller that President Trump personally directed him to lie to Congress by claiming negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow ended months earlier than they actually ended.

Now, if the president actually did that, that would be suborning perjury. That would be a federal crime.

Neither CNN nor any other major media organization has as of now been able to corroborate or verify the BuzzFeed report. Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, seemed skeptical, saying -- quote -- "These allegations may prove unfounded, but our committee is determined to get to the bottom of this and follow the evidence wherever it may lead."

Moments ago, the White House denied the story wholeheartedly, as did the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, earlier in the day, saying -- quote -- "Any suggestion from any source that the president counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false."

CNN's Jessica Schneider is digging into the new allegation and how it seems to in many ways line up with publicly available court hearings, documents and sentencing memos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, the president's attorney Rudy Giuliani labeling BuzzFeed's stunning report as categorically false and repeating their claims that Michael Cohen is a convicted criminal and a liar.

The White House is also denying the report.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, that's absolutely ridiculous. I think that the president's outside counsel addressed this best and said in a statement earlier today that it's categorically false.

SCHNEIDER: BuzzFeed reported explosive new claims that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about how long talks over the Trump Tower Moscow project lasted, which, if true, could mean the president obstructed justice.

CNN can't corroborate, but BuzzFeed cites two law enforcement officials who say Mueller has evidence, in addition to Cohen's claim that the president personally instructed Cohen to lie. BuzzFeed says the special counsel's office first learned of the president's command through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization, plus internal company e-mails, text messages and a cache of other documents.

The BuzzFeed reporting goes further than court documents from Michael Cohen's plea deal with prosecutors. In Mueller's sentencing memo for Cohen, prosecutors revealed how Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it.

The president has repeatedly pinned Cohen as a liar.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is a weak person. So he's lying, very simply, to get to reduced sentence.

SCHNEIDER: But if BuzzFeed's report is true, the president's pick for attorney general, William Barr, told senators Tuesday a situation like that could be a felony, obstruction of justice.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Yes, under that -- under an obstruction statute, yes.

SCHNEIDER: It's all prompting some Democrats to renew calls for impeachment.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: This is obstruction of justice. If these facts are true, this is suborning perjury. I think there's no question it's an impeachable offense.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse going even a step further, saying, if this is all true, it's clear obstruction of justice and an indictment of the president should not be off the table.

[16:05:00]

Senator Whitehouse tweeting this earlier today: "It would be preposterous to block indictment of a sitting president based solely on DOJ Office of Legal counsel policy without a federal court having ruled on the question" -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

Just to underscore how significant this could be, if it's true, it's worth recalling that Robert Mueller in his sentencing memo from December drew a line, asserting that false statements made to the public about Russia could potentially be seen as obstruction of justice, an attempt to limit the investigation, saying when Cohen lied about the Moscow project -- quote -- "Cohen deliberately shifted the timeline of what occurred, in the hopes of limiting the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election."

So now BuzzFeed says Cohen did that in front of Congress, not just the public, at the direction of President Trump.

Seung Min, "The Washington Post," like CNN, has not confirmed, not corroborated. We do not know for ourselves that this is true.

Assuming it is true, a very big deal.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Incredibly a big deal, because you are directing someone to commit perjury, which is a crime.

Again, I do think while we have seen very vocal statements from Democratic lawmakers, senior Democratic lawmakers about the report, I do think it's notable that they are still exercising caution, first of all, caveating with the fact that we will wait and see if the BuzzFeed report is true, and also using this opportunity to stress again that the Mueller investigation has to be led to a conclusion, and that the report has to be made public, which we know was a major focus point of Bill Barr, the aforementioned Bill Barr's confirmation hearings this week.

And Democrats came away from that hearing not all that confident. First of all, they had problems with the fact that he wouldn't explicitly commit to recusing because of his previous comments on the Mueller investigation, but also that he did seem to kind of signal that the Mueller report may not see the light of day.

And that is particularly concerning for Democrats in Congress, who want all of this out there as much as possible so the public can learn what the special counsel found out.

TAPPER: And I will say also it seems the Democratic lawmakers -- I agree with you. They're being -- all of them are saying if it's true.

The Democratic grassroots, at least based on what I read on social media, they want this to be true.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Can't believe everything you read on Twitter, Jake.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: On Twitter, Facebook, they want this to be true.

And does it bother that people in the Democratic grassroots, when Democratic leaders are like, calm down, let's see?

SANDERS: Absolutely, I think it does, because there are so -- for folks that are not professional politicos, as I like to call the people sitting at this table, one could argue that you have seen lots of things that this president has done, has engaged in, things coming out of the White House.

And my sister is sitting at home, like, what does he have to do to get impeached? Is this not an impeachable offense? So I think the temperament from Congress is very important here, because, if this is true, this is very damning evidence of obstruction of justice.

This, is not even evidence. This is obstruction.

TAPPER: We should do a drinking game. If you're at home watching, every time somebody says if it's true, drink.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: I want to ask you, Kristen, President Trump tweeted this morning about Cohen, saying: "Lying to reduce his jail time. Watch father-in-law."

Now, I don't know if that's the best defense for him, because he's basically saying, Michael Cohen is lying, and while I'm saying that, here's a little like harassment and intimidation of a witness, by suggesting that his father-in-law be prosecuted.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And this is example 185,000 of why the president should have his phone taken from him by his lawyers. But Rudy Giuliani, as his lawyer, does not do that.

Look, I think it's proper to continue saying if it's true, because it's only from one news organization. This is the sort of thing I would expect other news organizations to be able to confirm at some point.

But, two, it's not because I don't believe President Trump's not capable of it, and it's not because I think that the reporters are bad reporters. It's because I think that Bob Mueller's a professional, and he's been running an operation so far that has been leak-free.

And this is sort of implying that something has leaked out of Mueller's world, which seems unusual to me. My sense was always that Bob Mueller was going to be a leak-free operation and when he was ready to tell the American public something, then he would tell the American public something.

And so my hesitation, the reason why I still take this with a grain of salt, and why I say if it's true is not because I think President Trump is this incredibly innocent guy who's not capable of this, but rather that I think Bob Mueller is a professional and I would be surprised if all of the sudden his ship was a leaky ship.

SANDERS: Now, you have a number -- I do think there are a number of members both in the Senate and the House of Representatives that are saying, well, OK, we want -- we need to protect the Mueller investigation.

But if this is true -- again, if this is true, if you're listening at home -- if this is true...

TAPPER: They're going to be drunk by the end of...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: ... we need to know what is going on.

And so I think some of this information -- I think some members of Congress also shocked to read this alleged information in BuzzFeed. And if they are thinking, oh, does the Mueller investigation have this, why do we not have this?

[16:10:03]

Now, perhaps because investigation on the House side was not up to par, if you will.

TAPPER: Right.

SANDERS: But I think some members are feeling like they really want to exercise their duty on oversight, and being a co-equal branch of government. But they just don't have all the information.

TAPPER: And, Seung Min, we heard what Lindsey Graham asking the question of Barr about would suborning perjury -- is that something the president could be impeached for? Is that a crime?

Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, Democrat, also possibly running for president, hasn't decided yet, also asked a similar question. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: OK.

BARR: Well, any person who persuades another...

KLOBUCHAR: Any person.

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: OK.

You also said that a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?

BARR: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He seems befuddled that she's even asking the question.

KIM: Well, what's so funny about it, I mean, taking it away from the context of today's news, is that he's answering questions to basic legal principles.

I mean, I don't think, on its face, it's anything groundbreaking here. But just in the context of everything, it is remarkable what his own attorney general nominee is saying.

And going back to the Cohen part for a second, remember, he's already supposed to testify before the House in early February. That was already going to be must-see TV anyway. And now Republicans in the Senate, the chamber that they still control, is going to come under more pressure for -- to try to call Cohen to testify.

Senator Richard Blumenthal has sent a letter to chairman, Lindsey Graham, of the Judiciary Committee to call Cohen before that committee. We were speaking with the Intel Committee chairman, Richard Burr, earlier this week, so obviously before this story broke, about his plans to subpoena Cohen possibly before his committee.

And while he doesn't want to be specific yet, he makes the point that it's difficult to talk to somebody when they're in jail. So we would like for him to try to get here soon as possible.

TAPPER: Now better -- sooner, rather than later.

Speaking of Barr, interesting story. CNN is reporting three stories telling CNN that President Trump was startled to learn during the Barr hearing that he and Robert Mueller are good friends.

Now, Barr actually was asked about this in 2017. He talked to President Trump to find -- because Trump was talking about maybe having him join the legal team. Barr ultimately didn't. But he did disclose this. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARR: The president wanted to know -- he said, "Oh, you know Bob Mueller? How well do you know Bob Mueller?"

And I told him how well I knew Bob Mueller and how the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this is all over and so forth.

And he was interested in that wanted to know, what I thought about Mueller's integrity and so forth and so on. And I said, Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, that was 2017. But in 2019, President Trump was apparently surprised to learn this.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Well, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that President Trump -- again, he's consistently -- he showed this pattern with Sessions when Sessions was attorney general of sort of thinking of the Justice Department as a department that is supposed to be working for him.

And, therefore, why is the Justice Department, which is supposed to be working for me, making my life more challenging?

And I think Barr gave the right answer there, which is to be honest about his relationships, to be honest about how he's going to approach the situation. It doesn't surprise me that President Trump would all of a sudden now, when confronted with it in a situation where it's got personal consequences for him, would be a little more startled.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

This is a strong obstruction accusation, and it sticks out to investigators -- what may not add up from their perspective next.

Plus, the secretary of homeland security accused of lying to Congress. The FBI has just been called on to prove it.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:43] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

"BuzzFeed News" making the claim that President Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower Moscow, citing two federal law enforcement officials. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the matter. The question here is whether he was directed to do so.

As of now, neither CNN nor any other major media organization have been able to independently verify the "BuzzFeed", story which states, quote, the special counsel's office learned about Trump's directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump organization and internal company emails text messages and a cache of other documents.

Let's discuss all this with former FBI and CIA analyst Phil Mudd. Also with me is former FBI supervisory special agent Josh Campbell.

Again, CNN cannot independently confirm the reporting, Josh. As an investigator, what do you make of it? Do you believe it?

JOSH CAMPABELL, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: Well, good to be with you, Jake.

For people like Phil and I, you know, we don't deal in the realm of what is politically advantageous to one side or another, who's -- what's going to harm someone in the like. We only deal in what is true. And to that end, I think there are a lot more questions here than we have answers right now.

Obviously, the allegations are explosive, and we keep saying if it's true -- if it is true, obviously, this is -- it will cause a huge problem for the president of the United States because it suggests that he broke the law. But again, it goes back to the questions.

Now, the story indicates as you just mentioned there a second ago the reference to text messages and emails and other communications. We're going to need to see that, some other kind of corroborating information that will help discern, you know, what it is that we're dealing with here.

One thing that's interesting also, Jake, is when you look at the president's legal strategy to this point and you compare that to these allegations, what he's done whenever he's found himself boxed into a corner is say, well, everybody knew about it, it wasn't illegal and even if I did do it you know that's OK -- that's not going to fly here because people don't normally direct other people who lie to Congress, no one knew about this until now, and again, this is something that you know the president is not supposed to do nor is any particular citizen.

So if this does pan out, it's highly troubling for the president of the United States and I don't think his typical legal strategy is going to work here.

TAPPER: Phil, what did you think of it?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER FBI SENIOR INTELLIGENCE ADVISER: Pretty simple, when I look at I like I said I want more, Jake, I want more. This is why being on the inside once in a blue moon is interesting. We're seeing one square on a Rubik's cube.

Remember, we still don't know what happened with Roger Stone. We'd still know the extent of whether other people discussed that Don Jr. meeting, whether the special counsel can confirm that there was a conspiracy to hide that meeting beyond what we already know in the public domain.

[16:20:08] We don't know whether there were people who are aware of WikiLeaks and when that when they released information before it happened. So, I'm looking at this saying I suspect and this is just a suspicion there's some truth here. I doubt that the truth is exactly as it was reported in "BuzzFeed", but I want to see the full story, a two-hour movie.

And it's like we got two minutes in the middle of the movie and investigators like, where's all the other stuff? Where is it?

TAPPER: And, Josh, the president has said when asked about the Trump Tower Moscow project, he said he's a businessman, he didn't know whether or not he was going to win the election, so he continued to push ahead with growing the Trump Organization. Why do you think the Trump Tower Moscow Project which it has been mentioned by the special counsel in their investigation, it's not just today in the "BuzzFeed" story, why is that key to the special counsel? What's the importance of it?

CAMPBELL: Well, it's key because if you go back to the special counsels original mandate which is determine whether there was this coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, that was obviously a high important part of it. Was the Trump -- were the Trump people trying to curry favor with the government of Russia in order to further a business project there was along this narrative the perhaps the president didn't think he was going to win and so it was using this campaign, or to help, you know, maybe secure different business dealings, and then once he then got elected you know now what do we do? That kind of thing.

That's why it's important -- but it's also important because it goes down to it comes out of the fact that the president lied, that he direct someone else to lie about this entire operation and that is the question that we just don't know right now.

Now, we've long said that Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer and fixer, this is the guy who knows where all the bodies are buried. I think that a lot of the recent reporting is showing that he is now leading investigators to those bodies so to speak, and us as well through some of this media reporting. So, he we know that he is a large liability for the president of the United States because of what he knows and it'll be interesting to watch what else comes out. It'll be interesting to watch what he says in that hearing.

The last thing I'll say is that if you were in Trump orbit and you were engaged in any type of malfeasance that we've seen today or anything that we haven't seen today, now is the time to be picking up the phone. 1-800-CALL-FBI, that's the number. Now is the time to be reporting that, because if Michael Cohen knew about it, that means investigators know about it.

TAPPER: It's a good PSA there.

Phil, one of the problems with this story is that like they're like thirty players and they're all liars. Like every single one of them is a liar, every single one of them not just like has told a lie here or two, but just like full out -- full-throated liar.

Now, according to Mueller sentencing memo, quote, the information provided by Cohen about the Moscow Project in these proffer sessions is consistent with and corroborated by other information obtained in the course of the special counsel's investigation. But Cohen obviously has a credibility program and initially lied to the special counsel's team.

My question for you is: does the special counsel rely on anything Cohen says if they don't have other evidence?

MUDD: Boy, I would be really leery of doing that, not because you don't sit across the table and think that he's provided corroborated information in the past, but because if you ever put him on the stand, somebody's going to tear him to shreds. The president rightly is attacking Cohen's credibility. The mistake the president's making is saying that Cohen is lying now.

Remember what happened with Paul Manafort when he lied after he got a deal, the special counsel brought a hammer down on him. What the president is missing is if Cohen lies now and I suspect Mueller could figure it out because he's got a mountain of data, Cohen is not going to get off the hook, he's going to get on the hook.

Last thing I'd say, Jake -- remember those famous raids on the office, the hotel room, the home --

TAPPER: Yes.

MUDD: -- of Michael Cohen, they're getting all the information not just financial information but stuff like text. When Cohen says something, the investigators are putting that Rubik's cube together and they can figure out with some degree of reliability whether he's lying or not.

TAPPER: You keep mentioning Rubik's cubes, I hope the young -- I hope the kids out there understand what we're talking about. Maybe Google Rubik's cube. I don't know how about relevant a pop culture references that is.

CAMPBELL: I think you're challenged, Jake.

TAPPER: I remember it, Phil. I used to -- you know, I used to do it.

Anyway, Phil Mudd, Josh Campbell, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

The petty political battle now that's taken up a notch. The president and speaker going toe to toe getting personal and a very long way off from any apparent deal to end the government shutdown.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back.

When President Trump canceled the trip of the speaker of the House and a congressional delegation to Afghanistan, he violated security protocols by announcing that such a trip had even been scheduled into a war zone. The president told Speaker Pelosi in a letter he was -- that she was welcome to fly commercially. But today, Pelosi charged that the Trump administration started sharing information about that trip flying commercially, thus putting the entire delegation in danger.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: But we had prerogative to travel commercially and we made plans to do that, until the administration then leaked that we were traveling commercially and that endangered me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: This all comes after the president canceled that military plane originally supposed to fly the delegation yesterday. A White House official rebuking her accusation today, telling CNN in part: When the speaker of the House and about others from Capitol Hill decided to book their own commercial flights to Afghanistan, the world is going to find out, unquote.

Now, as CNN's Abby Phillip reports, amid all this Washington fighting, little or really no progress to put 80 -- I'm sorry, 800,000 Americans back to work has been made.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Shutdown negotiations now devolving from petty bickering to unfounded accusations between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.