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THE SITUATION ROOM
Accused Russian Spy Maria Butina in Court Tomorrow, May Reveal New Details About Her Ties to Kremlin Intel; Senate Advances Resolution to End Support for Saudi-Led War in Yemen After House GOP Moves to Gut the Measure; Interview With New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez; AMI Reaches Plea Deal With Federal Prosecutors Over Buried Trump Stories; Fixer Michael Cohen Sentenced to Three Years in Prison. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired December 12, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: He says his crimes were all about covering up for the president. With his former fixer being punished, will Mr. Trump also pay a price?
Influencing the election. In a deal with prosecutors, a tabloid publisher admits to its role in one of Cohen's crimes involving a hush money payoff to a Playboy model. What other secrets were spilled and did they incriminate the president?
Seething. We're told the president is furious at Michael Cohen tonight, calling him a liar in private, even as he stays silent in public. Is he feeling the heat from the Russia probe and the growing talk of impeachment?
And Russian spycraft. An accused Kremlin operative, Maria Butina, is cooperating with the feds. New questions now are being raised at the same time about her connections to Russian intelligence agencies. We could find out how much she really knows when she is in a federal courtroom tomorrow.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, ordered to serve three years in prison for multiple crimes, including crimes he says he committed on behalf of the president of the United States.
Cohen telling the court he felt the need to cover up for Mr. Trump's -- quote -- "dirty deeds." Cohen says he will continue to cooperate with prosecutors as the Russia probe moves closer and closer to the president, his business and his family.
Also tonight, we are told Mr. Trump is seething, railing against Cohen in private conversations and calling him a liar. I will get reaction from Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, and our
correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our national political correspondent, M.J. Lee.
M.J., no one who has been punished in the Russia probe so far is as close to the president as Michael Cohen.
M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
And the three-year prison sentence that Michael Cohen got today was certainly not the outcome that he was hoping for, and, in fact, his lawyers were hoping that he would get no jail time. And as a part of their argument for leniency, they pointed to both his cooperation and also made a personal case, saying that Michael Cohen and his family had already suffered so much.
Well, the judge that decided Michael Cohen's fate today, he clearly did not agree.
LEE (voice-over): Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in prison in a dramatic day of reckoning for Donald Trump's former attorney and fixer.
It is the longest amount of prison time yet handed down to a former associate of the president in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
With his family watching in the courtroom, an emotional Cohen saying he takes full responsibility, but also pointing the finger at the president, saying: "Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds."
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to eight criminal counts and last month to lying to Congress. In a final plea to Judge William Pauley, Cohen describing his life as -- quote -- "personal and mental incarceration" since he started working for Trump.
All of this a stark reversal from Cohen's years of praise.
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I care about Mr. Trump.
He's a man of great intellect, great intuition and great ability.
He will ultimately go down in history as the greatest president.
LEE: The judge delivering harsh words to Cohen, saying he thrived on his access to wealth and powerful people, and he became one himself.
The president turned on his former lawyer earlier this year, as Cohen began cooperating with investigators.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What he's trying to do is end -- and it's very simple. He's got himself a big prison sentence. And he's trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story.
LEE: At the center of Cohen's unraveling, two women and two infamous hush payments, former Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels. Both allege they had affairs with Trump, which he denies.
Federal prosecutors now confirm Cohen facilitated those secret payments at Trump's direction.
The president also denies this, despite being recorded discussing the payments with Cohen.
COHEN: When it comes time for the financing, which will be...
TRUMP: Wait a sec, what financing?
COHEN: Well, I will have to pay him something.
TRUMP: (INAUDIBLE) pay with cash...
COHEN: No, no, no, no, no. I got it.
TRUMP: ... check.
LEE: The special counsel's office saying in court today that Cohen continues to cooperate to this day with their investigation.
Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee saying Cohen has -- quote -- "told the truth."
One business deal Mueller's team has zeroed in on, Cohen's negotiations with Russians to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Those talks went on until 2016, when Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee. Cohen admitting to investigators that he discussed the project with then candidate Trump, even though Trump said frequently on the campaign trail that he had no business ties to Russia.
TRUMP: I have nothing to do with Russia, folks, OK? I will give you a written statement. Nothing to do. But they tie me into Russia all the time. They like to tie me into Russia.
LEE: Now, Cohen will have sometime before he heads to prison. The judge has ordered him to report to prison on March 6, in addition to paying around a million dollars in restitution -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, he will be up in prison in Upstate New York, not too far from New York City, starting in March.
M.J., at the same time Cohen was sentenced, prosecutors made public for the first time that the owner of "The National Enquirer" admitted its role in the payoff to one of two women Trump allegedly had an affair with. What does the company say the campaign knew about that hush money payment?
LEE: That's right.
This is a very big headline involving AMI. This is the company that made the hush payment, of course, to Karen McDougal. The SDNY, the Southern District of New York, announcing today it will not prosecute AMI for that payment, in exchange for cooperation and an admission from AMI.
Let me just read a very key passage from the announcement. SDNY says; "AMI made a payment in the amount of $150,000 in cooperation, consultation and concert with and at the request and suggestion of one or more members or agents of a candidate's 2016 presidential campaign to ensure that a woman did not publicize damaging allegations about that candidate before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence that election."
Now, as a part of this announcement, SDNY detailing a meeting that David Pecker, the chairman of AMI, had with Michael Cohen, in addition to at least one other member of the campaign, in order to discuss killing unflattering stories about then-candidate Trump.
Now, why is this potentially so significant, Wolf? Because Donald Trump all along has tried to paint this picture of Michael Cohen as having acted on his own, that he was a lawyer who sort of went rogue. Well, after this announcement, it becomes even harder for the president to make that argument -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point. M.J. Lee reporting for us, thank you very much.
Let's bring in our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, and our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.
Shimon, you were there. You were outside of the courthouse in New York today. The special counsel's lawyer said that Cohen will continue to cooperate on the Russia probe.
So, what more does Cohen know about what he called the president's dirty deeds and how damaging could his continued cooperation and testimony be to the president?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is definitely going to continue to be damaging, in terms of at least the Russia investigation.
Michael Cohen and the special counsel that appeared in court today essentially said that he's continuing to cooperate. So whatever other information he's going to be providing could potentially be damaging. I think we were all taken aback by Michael Cohen's words today. Certainly, no one expected him to use the words dirty deeds.
He knows a lot. What more he knows, we don't know. He hasn't been really willing to say, at least not publicly. And the question is whether or not he is somehow holding out for more, a better deal here, perhaps less jail time in the end, that maybe now that he knows he is facing these three years in jail, maybe he's now going to be willing to fully cooperate with the SDNY, with the U.S. attorney's office in New York, which could potentially open up the president to a lot more exposure legally because of the organization, the Trump Organization, and some of their business dealings.
We don't exactly know, unfortunately, at this point what Michael Cohen is talking about. But, nonetheless, the president, Donald Trump, should be considered that if Michael Cohen decides to fully cooperate, there is a lot more exposure for him.
And beyond that, Evan, Cohen is going to prison at least in part for crimes he has implicated the president of the United States in. Should the president be worried about the legal trouble that he could be facing?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Look, I think people around him, certainly his legal team, have been worried about this ever since the day in August when Michael Cohen stood up in court and pointed the finger at the president.
And now, of course, we see the prosecutors endorsing what Michael Cohen has said. They have been preparing for this. They call it -- one of the lawyers I talked to call it a kill shot, Wolf. And it goes beyond the president, though.
As Shimon was pointing out there, this is also about the Trump Organization, and that is perhaps something that the president holds even more dear, right? It goes to the very fiber of his business existence, right, the Trump Organization, an organization that he built and that he built from -- obviously from the roots of his own father's business.
So I think there's a lot of trouble here that could be in the works for the president and his company.
BLITZER: That's a good point.
Shimon, the president, as you know, he has denied knowing about the payments to these two women, but now "The National Enquirer" is admitting it worked with at least one of -- one other member of the Trump campaign in facilitating the hush money payment.
How does that revelation hurt the president's defense?
PROKUPECZ: Tremendously, because here is the thing about David Pecker. We have heard a lot about David Pecker, the chairman of AMI.
And he is close. He was close to Donald Trump. They were good friends. So he knows a lot, right? There's a lot of information out there that David Pecker knows, a lot of secrets. There's this vault that apparently contained all sorts of information. And as far as now, based on what the SDNY released today, David Pecker is cooperating in this investigation. So, there's potentially a lot that he has shared with the SDNY. And it is clear that the SDNY and the Department of Justice and FBI agents and other law enforcement officials are believing their story, are believing David Pecker, are believing AMI, are believing what Michael Cohen is saying.
So, now you have all of these people just mounting, mounting, mounting of information, lots of evidence, and there's other evidence. There's e-mails. There's a recorded conversation, all of this against what the president has simply been saying is not true.
So, clearly, the law enforcement community, the Department of Justice all believing this, and I guess the president is the only one right now who says everyone is lying.
BLITZER: That's interesting.
You know, Evan, all of this is happening a day after the president's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, he revealed he's been cooperating with the Mueller team a lot longer than previously known. What does it say to you?
PEREZ: Look, it does say that this is one reason why the Mueller prosecutors have said that they don't think he deserves any prison time.
They talked about more than 62 hours that he has spent with those prosecutors. We don't know exactly what he has provided, but just in the last few minutes, Wolf, the judge overseeing the case just unsealed an order. Apparently, the sentencing memo that we saw last week, there were three versions of it.
There's one version that even Michael Flynn and his lawyers cannot see. So there is information contained in that, that this is information provided to the judge to sort of describe what kind of help Michael Flynn has provided to the prosecutors, but they don't want Michael Flynn to even know.
There's a lot of times that these cooperators come in, Wolf, and they tell stuff that even they don't know how important it is, that prosecutors know, this is incredibly helpful to our case, but they don't want to tell the cooperator exactly how helpful it is.
And so that's exactly what has happened. The judge now says that there's a version that we have seen publicly, there's a version that the Flynn lawyers are able to see, and there's a version that even Michael Flynn and his lawyers cannot see.
BLITZER: Yes, that's a big deal, indeed. And I'm sure the president's lawyers and probably the president himself, they're worried about that as well.
BLITZER: Good reporting as usual, Evan and Shimon. We appreciate it. Now to the White House, where President Trump apparently is seething
about Michael Cohen, privately telling associates that his former lawyer is a liar.
We are joined by our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, the president may be fuming about Cohen in private, but, publicly, he is showing unusual restraint. What is the latest?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. He is seething in silence so far tonight.
President Trump bit his tongue today, turning down a chance to weigh in on Michael Cohen's prison sentence. The president isn't likely to maintain that silence for very long, as the special counsel's investigation is now moving to its next target.
Privately, though, as you said, the president is said to be seething behind the scenes about the Cohen case and referring to his former lawyer as a -- quote -- "liar."
ACOSTA (voice-over): At the revealing of a new executive order at the White House, President Trump's signature was punctuated with silence that spoke volumes, as he refused to comment on the three-year sentence handed down to his longtime fixer Michael Cohen.
QUESTION: Mr. President, your reaction to Michael Cohen's sentencing?
ACOSTA: The president is now in a fix, as Cohen heads to prison for his role in hush money payments to two women who alleged affairs with Mr. Trump before the 2016 election.
Cohen, who once echoed the "Lock her up" rhetoric from the campaign, tweeting, "When you go to prison for defrauding America and perjury, your room and board will be free," told prosecutors he was directed to make those payments by the president.
That's not how the president explained it to reporters earlier this year.
QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
TRUMP: No, no.
Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney, and you will have to ask Michael Cohen.
ACOSTA: Despite the mounting legal worries for the president, he insists he is not afraid of being impeached, telling Reuters: "I'm not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened."
And a source close to the president told CNN Mr. Trump sees impeachment as a real possibility, as explained to voters before the midterms.
TRUMP: They like to use the impeach word. Impeach Trump. Maxine Waters, we will impeach him. But he didn't do anything wrong. It doesn't matter. We will impeach him. How do you impeach somebody that's doing a great job, that hasn't done anything wrong? Our economy is good. How do you do it?
ACOSTA: The president is blaming the mistress money on his former attorney, saying: "Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I assumed he would know what he's doing."
And as for other campaign aides and associates ensnared in the Russia probe, Mr. Trump complains: "The stuff you are talking about is peanut stuff."
TRUMP: The last time, Chuck, you shut it down.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: No, no, no.
ACOSTA: Away from the investigation, the president may still decide to shut down the government to secure funding for his border wall, the subject of his Oval Office brawl with Democratic leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer all but accused the president of acting like a child.
SCHUMER: Because Leader Pelosi and I simply didn't go along with him, President Trump threw a temper tantrum and promised to shut the government unless he got what he wanted.
ACOSTA: With a spending bill expiring before the holidays, the president doesn't sound like he's backing down.
SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: If it is shut down, it is a pox on all of our houses. I don't think President Trump -- President Trump is bluffing, and I don't think Speaker Pelosi is going to give an inch, because she wants to be speaker.
ACOSTA: The president is pointing to the latest terror attack in France as proof the U.S. needs the wall, tweeting: "We are going to strengthen our borders even more. Chuck and Nancy must give us the votes to get additional border security."
But a wall would not have helped in France, where authorities say the suspect in that attack was born in that country.
ACOSTA: Michael Cohen's saga may not be over just yet. His former attorney Lanny Davis, who is now an adviser, says the president's former fixer is open to testifying in front of the cameras when Democrats take control of those key committees in the House early next year, Wolf.
Just a hunch at this point, but I think we haven't heard the last from Michael Cohen -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, I suspect we will be hearing a lot from him before he heads to prison in early March in Upstate New York.
Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
Joining us now, Senator Bob Menendez. He is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
So, as you know, these federal prosecutors, they say the president directed Michael Cohen to commit two of the crimes for which he is going to jail. What does that mean for the president?
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, look, you know, we know that the president's confidants have lied and obviously now lied for him.
In the case of Mr. Cohen, the lies are really significant, now that we know the truth. The truth is that the president, as a candidate, was involved deeply in a Russian business deal, and that Michael Cohen spoke to a high Kremlin official about that deal, that it was going on deep into the presidential campaign, and that Michael Cohen, at the direction of the president, actually committed these campaign finance violations.
It is the first time that any of the individuals, in terms of a public knowledge, has said that they were directed by the president to do something that is a violation of law.
So it seems to me that the walls are closing in on the president, as we see those who lied for him, his former campaign chair, his former lawyer Mr. Cohen, his national security adviser, are now all telling the truth about him.
The question that is left is, does the fish rot from the head down?
BLITZER: You know, the prosecutors say that AMI, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," made that hush money payment, in their words, federal prosecutors, in cooperation, consultation and concert with, and at the request and suggestion of one or more members or agents of the Trump presidential campaign, in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
How concerning is that?
MENENDEZ: Well, I think it should be very concerning for the president.
What we're beginning to see, as elements of this continue to become more public, is the interlocking relationships and the corroboration of what some of these people who have turned now witnesses for the government are being independently verified by other entities, in this case "The Enquirer." And so that interlocking begins to show you the web of actions that
took place by those who are clearly associated with the president, whether through the campaign or post that. And it goes to prove that the remarks or the comments of these individuals -- the testimony, I should say, that they're giving to the special counsel and the prosecutor are being buttressed by other information.
And I think that's a rather critical element the president should be concerned about.
BLITZER: Congressman Adam Schiff, who is going to be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee starting in January, he just told me in the last hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM that he wants the Justice Department to review the precedent that a sitting president can't be indicted.
What is your reaction to that? Do you agree with him?
MENENDEZ: Well, I think that no one is above the law.
And at the end of the day, how far would you allow a president of the United States, whether it be this one or any other, to commit serious violations of the law and continue to stay in office simply because they're the president?
If that was the case, then Richard Nixon would have stayed in the White House. And the list goes on in history. So I think that the department has to consider, at what point are there serious enough violations of the law that even a president must ultimately come forth and have to respond to it in a court of law?
BLITZER: Senator Menendez, before I let you go, I want to turn to Saudi Arabia.
You and some of your fellow senators, you voted to advance this resolution that would end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. But earlier today, the House of Representatives took action that will make it easier for House Republicans to block the resolution.
If it fails, what is your next step?
MENENDEZ: Well, first of all, I think we're going to get a strong vote out of the Senate. The vote to proceed to this legislation was 60 votes, a bipartisan vote, I think a clear repudiation of the administration's embrace of Saudi Arabia as it relates to Yemen and beyond that.
And if we cannot -- we will pass it in the Senate, I'm convinced. If it cannot pass in the House, we will go right back to this at the beginning of the next Congress, and I hope to do something even more significant, because while this resolution is important about not having U.S. involvement in Yemen, the way we stop the war in Yemen and that there is a consequence for the crown prince for the Khashoggi killing is with the legislation I have with Senator Graham, Senator Young and others on a bipartisan basis, the Saudi Arabia Accountability in Yemen Act.
Strong sanctions against Global Magnitsky, against those who were involved in the Khashoggi killing, stopping those who are trying to stop humanitarian aid to Yemen, stopping those who are giving aid to the Houthis, driving to a political solution in Yemen, and suspending arm sales to Saudi Arabia, that has real teeth.
And it's a bipartisan piece of legislation. We're building even greater support for it. We intend to move that early next year.
BLITZER: All right, Senator, thanks very much, Senator Menendez joining us from Capitol Hill.
MENENDEZ: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead: With Michael Cohen still cooperating with Robert Mueller, what else might he reveal about the president, his business and what Michael Cohen is calling his dirty deeds?
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, the president's longtime fixer Michael Cohen punished with three years in prison for crimes he says he committed to cover up for Mr. Trump's so-called dirty deeds, Michael Cohen calling them dirty deeds.
Prosecutors have directly implicated the president in some of the crimes involving hush money payments that violated campaign finance laws.
And, tonight, we are told the president is seething, privately calling Cohen a liar.
Let's bring in our analysts.
And, Gloria, you have done a lot of reporting on all of this, how this relationship between Michael Cohen and the president has changed.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
I mean, look, Michael Cohen was the person who said -- and we all know it -- that he would take a bullet for the president. And now this relationship has become tortured.
The president believes he is a liar. Michael Cohen believes the president is a liar. And the line that struck me today from the sentencing was that Michael Cohen said that he is "committed to ensuring that history will not remember me as the villain of this story."
And our reporting shows that Michael Cohen has a lot more story to tell, and he intends to continue to cooperate, and there's some hope in his camp that perhaps there's a way too reduce his sentence if he does. But they're not done talking, and Michael Cohen is committed to telling what he knows about the president.
And we do not know where that will lead at this point, Wolf.
BLITZER: That's a good point.
Phil, the three-year sentence that Michael Cohen has received, that's the longest so far in the Mueller probe, in the Mueller investigation. What message does that send to the president of the United States?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think to the president and others, the message is pretty straightforward.
Look, the language out of Robert Mueller's office was positive. You cooperate, you get a get-out-of-jail free card, the best thing you can get in "Monopoly." Get out of jail free.
But the language out of the Southern District of New York, if you read it, was not subtle. They were rough and they were direct. The message is pretty clear. If you want a get-out-of-jail-free card from the feds, you don't get to pick and choose what you talk about.
Cohen evidently talked about his relationship with the president. I think he skipped over, my guess is, some older financial irregularities that he wanted to protect. You can't pick and choose. And if you do, they will come after you.
BLITZER: Yes, you have got to cooperate in everything. You can't be selective.
MUDD: Yes. That's right.
BLITZER: You know, Laura, Cohen directly implicated the president of the United States. What is Cohen's strategy in all of this?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think, in some respects, it may be monkeys in a barrel, that I'm not going down by myself here for things that I was directed to do.
And, of course, his hope, I'm sure, his very fervent hope, to say, listen, I was told to do this, I was acting not of my own self- interest, contrary to what SDNY had to say, which said, listen, you are not a victim. You are somebody who capitalized and monetized on your power. You were hopeful that it would lead you further and get you more money.
His thought is, listen, I'm not the villain, I'm the victim here, and I am really a minion who had strings on his back pulled by Donald Trump.
And so that's part of his overall, I think, to the president of the United States. And also it is part of his hope for the cooperation agreement that could still be out there before his sentence actually begins on March 6, to say, hey, here I am trying to be of assistance. I am implicating somebody who is the biggest fish in all of the ponds that America that could possibly hold, and I have information about other people perhaps as well. I think he was using this as maybe a last-ditch effort, in recognition
of the fact that he's going to prison regardless. How long was up to him.
BLITZER: You know, David, the Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, he was with me in THE SITUATION ROOM in the last hour.
He thinks the Justice Department now should go ahead and reexamine its policy that a sitting president of the United States can't be indicted. Should the president be worried?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, it is not an out-of-question view.
That was the opinion of Judge Ken Starr when he was the independent counsel running the Clinton investigation in the '90s. He had an outside memo prepared to that effect, Wolf. So, this isn't some wholly new idea.
But, right now, Justice Department guidance remains that the president can't be indicted, the sitting president can't be indicted. There's been no indication, I don't think, from special counsel Mueller that he wants to upend that status quo.
[18:30:09] The problem for Trump, even if he's not indicted, President Trump is facing political peril. He's facing questions from within his own party, certainly from outside his own party, and he could, potentially on some of these charges, be indicted after his presidency, if he is only a one-term president.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Gloria, Cohen has continued to cooperate, as we know, with the prosecutors.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
BLITZER: What else does he know? What else might be of interest?
BORGER: I wish I knew. I would like to know the answer to that question. We don't know the answer to that question.
But people close to Michael Cohen believe that he knows a lot about, for example, the Trump Organization. I mean, that would be -- that will be a natural thing for him to be talking about, and we don't know how that relates to the Russia investigation, or does it or does it not?
It's clear from listening to the special counsel's representative today in court that they believe he has been very valuable to them, but the specifics were not there. So we don't know, specifically, how he's been valuable, and he will be -- he believes, his camp believes he will continue to be -- to be valuable. Again, a difference with the Southern District of New York, who says, "He is not a credible witness, goodbye. You didn't cooperate fully," versus the special counsel. It was good cop/bad cop with, special counsel saying, "He's very valuable to us." We don't know how. LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Just to be clear the idea of what a
full cooperator would be, it's not somebody who just confirms details they already know, somebody that would be a confirmer. A cooperator means you're going to tell me things about uncharged criminal acts that I don't have any information on. You're actually going to be useful to me for illuminating issues, not just simply confirming I got it right the first, second or third time.
And also, unlike Mueller, it may not be a connection with Trump that they're looking for. It may also be personal finances and things that are closer to his heart. Maybe it's his family, who knows? The idea that the SDNY and Mueller have two very different directives and mandates is very clear now.
BLITZER: Much more on the breaking news coming up. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:36:43] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts. We're following the breaking news on Michael Cohen's sentencing today and the so- called dirty deeds he says he covered up for the president.
Also breaking, in a deal with prosecutors, the parent company of the "National Enquirer" is admitting its role in one of Cohen's crimes involving the hush-money pay-off to a Playboy model.
And Laura, Southern District of New York, the U.S. attorney for the Southern making no bones about it, that this was a violation of U.S. campaign finance law. What stands out to you as part of this -- this agreement that was just announced?
COATES: Well, the idea that Michael Cohen has pled guilty to what they know was a crime and somebody who was involved in facilitating it got an immunity deal, and now not to get prosecuted at all.
We knew that David Pecker, who was talked about in that now-infamous recording that was recorded about Michael Cohen, about Allen Weisselberg, the head money guy for Trump Organization, along with David Pecker and talking about all the different stories, he implied, the idea if he ever got hit by a bus, everything would be taken care of as once, we knew that he shortly after Michael Cohen pled guilty had an immunity deal. So you have to wonder how much was he cooperative and forthcoming about things they could never have known otherwise? That's the only way you would foreclose the opportunity to give a prosecution immunity deal to somebody.
BLITZER: Right. And David Pecker, the head of American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," he got an immunity deal. Allen Weisselberg --
BLITZER: -- the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, got an immunity deal. You know, Michael Cohen, he used to secretly record conversations that
he had, including with the president of the United States. And CNN obtained one of those conversations in which he talks about Allen Weisselberg and these hush-money pay-offs. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY TO DONALD TRUMP: I have spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with --
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?
COHEN: - funding. Yes. And it's all the stuff.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And the assumption is that that's just one of many secretly- recorded phone conversations that Michael Cohen had, and now that the federal prosecutors presumably have all of them.
BORGER: Well, don't forget, they raided his offices. They've got everything they need and more.
And -- and so you have a president who has said, first of all, that he didn't know about this, right? And look at where we are now. Today he's saying it's peanuts. He went from "I didn't know about it." You have recorded conversations about how you're going to do this pay-off. You have his good friend, Mr. Pecker and AMI, saying, "Yes, we did this to influence the election." You have Michael Cohen testifying to that.
I mean, you know, the president now is kind of in a pickle here, because everybody else, everybody else is saying, "This is what happened" except for the president of the United States.
And you can argue the seriousness of this campaign finance violation, but you can't argue that all of these people are saying the president knew about it, he either directed it or participated in it.
BLITZER: Prosecutors don't give immunity lightly.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, that's true. If you look at why they gave immunity here, they had -- let's play the scales of justice here. You want to decide who's more significant in this case, the president's personal lawyer, who knows about payments, or AMI, the media company that knows about payments.
[18:40:06] You're walking in, they're saying, "I don't know if I trust Michael Flynn [SIC]." I would easily go to the "National Enquirer" and say, "You're going to get immunity."
By the way, I think it worked. They must have gone in as the prosecutors to Michael Cohen and said, "We know about what you did to pay off those women. Let it out." The other thing I'd close is people aren't paying attention: there's
another line in the documents that have come out. And that is there's a second campaign person in those meetings.
BORGER: Yes, absolutely.
MUDD: I assume AMI, the media company, is talking about that second person. Who is it? Who is it?
BORGER: We're trying to find out. Honestly --
MUDD: I want it now, Gloria.
BORGER: -- we want to know.
BLITZER: If you find out, let us know.
What's your bottom line on this?
SWERDLICK: The president and his supporters like to talk about the president being able to play three-dimensional chess. It's the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York and the special counsel's -- special counsel investigation that are playing three- dimensional chess.
To Phil's point, you give immunity to David Pecker. He presumably corroborates everything Michael Cohen pleaded to in his agreement. If that's true, at a minimum, right, the president can still say it wasn't a campaign finance violation; but he can't say he didn't lie to the American people about payments made to alleged mistresses.
BLITZER: Remember, Allen Weisselberg has been with the Trump Organization, chief financial officer for 40 years. So he knows a lot. He has immunity. He's cooperating.
Stick around. There's much more news that we're following as the president seethes behind the scenes. Will he break his public silence on Michael Cohen's sentencing? We're monitoring that.
And the accused Russia spy Maria Butina is set to plead guilty tomorrow. Was she well-connected with Kremlin intelligence? We're taking a closer look at the alleged Russian spy.
[18:46:23] BLITZER: Tonight, as accused Russian spy Maria Butina is cooperating with U.S. investigators, a Kremlin official is making a rather provocative and unsubstantiated claim. The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman telling CNN that Butina is being tortured. Butina is expected in federal court tomorrow for a hearing on her plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd.
Brian, we know Butina infiltrated the GOP and the NRA. What more do we know about her alleged work as a Russian spy? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, former spies are telling us that
Maria Butina could be a one-time recruit by Russian intelligence or she could have been trained as a Russian spy. Tonight, we are breaking down the levels of Russia espionage inside the United States and where Butina could fit into that.
MARIA BUTINA, ACCUSED RUSSIAN SPY: My ideas or my impressions about --
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, as sources say the alluring young Russian and accused spy, Maria Butina, is set to enter a guilty plea and cooperate with U.S. prosecutors, new questions are being raised about how connected she may really have been to Russia's intelligence agencies. Vladimir Putin claims Butina was little more than a low- level bureaucrat in Russia's equivalent of the U.S. Senate.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): No one knows anything about her at all. The only thing anyone knows about her is that she work at the federation council for one of the deputies, that's it.
TODD: But former spies tell CNN while Putin may not have known about Butina, chances are someone in his government or spy services did.
LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't think she is actually an operative of Russian intelligence services, but the Russians have many ways of extending their tentacles and attempting to exert influence.
TODD: Former FBI counterintelligence agent Eric O'Neill, who brought down Russian spy Robert Hanssen, says Maria Butina may well not have been formally trained as a spy in Russia.
ERIC O'NEILL, CARBON BLACK NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIST: The difference between the U.S. and Russia is everyone who comes over here from Russia might be being used by Russian intelligence, whether they work for Russian intelligence or not.
TODD: That's because O'Neill says Russian espionage operates on different levels to gather intelligence inside the U.S. O'Neill says Butina who was a student at American University in Washington could have been in a category of everyday Russians including businesspeople and students who come to the U.S. legitimately, but then are recruited by Russian intelligence to perform a specific task.
Prosecutors have suggested in court filings Butina was specifically tasked with infiltrating conservative political groups such as the NRA, and are charging her with not registering as a foreign agent. O'Neill says she was not a traditional spy, the kind sent to work at foreign embassies as diplomats and spy under diplomatic cover.
But what's not clear from court filings, experts say, is if Butina was a so-called illegal, a person trained as a spy in Russia who comes to spy in the U.S. off the books, sometimes using a fake name, a fake passport, a phony job, cover so deep that only the highest levels of the Russian intelligence services would know she existed.
O'NEILL: So the best illegal comes over here under some pretense, becomes an American citizen, works in our businesses, maybe works at a government agency and is able to become a mole from within, acting as an American.
TODD: That's what Russian sleeper spies were doing when they were busted by the FBI in 2010 as part of Operation Ghost Stories. Ten Russians were caught doing long-term missions in the U.S., posing as normal, working American citizens. Here on surveillance, one operative is seen exchanging a bag with another man in a stairwell. Those spies were the basis for the popular FX drama "The Americans."
[18:50:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm sorry, we don't kill people. Jesus.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wouldn't.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He doesn't even do this kind of work anymore. He quit.
TODD: One of the real-life Russian spies caught in FBI's 2000 sting was Anna Chapman, seen here talking to an undercover FBI agent in a coffee shop. Like Butina, Chapman was an attractive woman but O'Neill says he sees a difference between Chapman and Maria Butina.
O'NEILL: Butina was more creating relationships for what we might call back channel communications. Chapman, on the other hand, was actually accessing people who were higher up in the food chain, in the political food chain, and quite possibly creating some of those connections that would lead to more serious espionage.
TODD: Intelligence experts say there are other big differences between those spies caught in that 2010 operation and Maria Butina. They point out those spies were swapped for spies who had been working for the West. There's no indication that Maria Butina is going to be swapped for anyone.
And those spies were hailed as heroes when they got back to Russia. Eric O'Neill says Maria Butina may not be hailed as a hero when she is sent back because she likely will have been interrogated by U.S. intelligence and by the time she gets back to Russia, Vladimir Putin may well treat her as a traitor -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's see what happens tomorrow in that federal courtroom. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you very much.
We'll have much more on all the breaking news right after this.
[18:56:00] BLITZER: Breaking tonight, the Senate has voted to advance a bill that would end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, defying President Trump and his refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
But in the House, Republicans are siding with the White House, moving to gut a similar measure against the Saudi-led war.
Our senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir has been reporting extensively from inside Yemen. Nima is joining us now live from London.
Nima, as U.S. lawmakers debate, there clearly is a lot more suffering in Yemen tonight.
NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As they go back and forth and the politicking continues, we wanted to show you the reality on the ground. The images, Wolf, are horrible, and incredibly, incredibly painful to watch, but we think really important because this is what is at stake.
But take a look.
ELBAGIR (voice-over): An ambulance screeches up to one of the few remaining hospitals in Hodeida. What we're about to show you is incredibly difficult to watch. In the jumble of bodies, a boy in yellow searching for his mother. She's dead.
Little bodies are carried in, draped in blood-soaked cloths. Everywhere, shock and blood and death.
This man, searching for his wife. He finds, instead, the body of his 3-year-old sister. It's too much to take in.
My wife, he asks. In surgery. The baby is fine. A glimmer of hope but all too quickly lost.
My mother? She's dead.
Even as the peace talks continue in Sweden between Yemen's warring parties, the U.S.-backed Saudi led coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels, so too does the violence on the ground. This footage was sent to CNN by the Houthi rebel-backed media. Eyewitnesses tell CNN the members of this family were killed during an artillery strike under Coalition Air Cover, a charge the coalition denies, saying the Houthis continue to target civilians in Hodeida.
This is just a glimpse into what it's like almost every night in this besieged city. In spite of U.S. government promises in October to deliver a ceasefire within 30 days, that month has long since passed. Much of what was filmed here so graphic, we're not going to show it in full.
Outside, two little lifeless bodies side-by-side waiting for loved ones to claim them. This man lists a litany of loss, his daughter and her son, his other daughter and her husband. It's too much.
Inside the boy in yellow finally finds his sister. As he comforts her, other children are carried out. There's just no more room at this hospital. Outside, his grandmother begins to wail, and he attempts to comfort her. It's all too much.
ELBAGIR: And it's not just Republican -- it's not just lawmakers who want to see an end to images like that. A Christian collective called Bread For the World is garnering tens of thousands of signatories to a petition they're putting forward to senators on both side of the aisle in the hope of seeing pictures like that stop -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nima, thank you so much for yet another powerful report. We also want to congratulate you on winning a prestigious Alfred DuPont Columbia University Award for your reporting.
ELBAGIR: Thank you.
BLITZER: Documenting exploitation and corruption across Africa. Keep up the great, great work.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.