ROBERT COSTA: Michael Cohen is going to prison and the former fixer brings the president’s conduct into the spotlight. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen speaks out about hush-money schemes during the 2016 campaign.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Let me tell you, I never directed him to do anything wrong.
MR. COSTA: Mr. Trump’s statements come as the National Enquirer publisher admits to federal prosecutors that the organization was involved. All this as another criminal investigation looks into the Trump Inaugural Committee’s fundraising.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I am proud to shut down the government for border security.
MR. COSTA: A showdown over the federal budget and border policy.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) He’s taking full responsibility for the Trump shutdown.
MR. COSTA: We cover these stories next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump is facing a barrage of investigations and political challenges ahead of divided government next year. And the probes from the special counsel to U.S. attorneys in New York continue to vex this White House, bringing figures from the president’s past to this turbulent present. The president’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, once said he’d take a bullet for Mr. Trump, but now Cohen is a convicted felon who is cooperating with prosecutors. He was sentenced this week to three years in prison for lying to Congress and other crimes. Cohen insists Mr. Trump knew the hush payments he made to women in the weeks before the 2016 election were illegal, a charge the president denies. In a related federal case, prosecutors say the publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, admitted the tabloid paid thousands to a woman who claims she once had an affair with Mr. Trump. A lot to cover.
And joining me tonight are four respected and deeply-sourced White House correspondents: Maggie Haberman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and a CNN contributor; Kristen Welker of NBC News; Jeff Zeleny of CNN; and Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post and an analyst for CNN.
Maggie, welcome to Washington Week. Really appreciate you being here.
MAGGIE HABERMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MR. COSTA: What does this week tell us, Maggie, about President Trump amid all this Michael Cohen news? You’ve covered both men for many years. What does it tell us? What does it reveal about the president?
MS. HABERMAN: I think, look, Michael Cohen described a different Donald Trump in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired earlier today. He talked about Trump being different than the man he knew. I personally think this is the same man that we saw in New York over many, many years, but it reveals this incredibly, you know, unusual – certainly for what we see from presidents – relationship where you have a person who is talking about his blind loyalty in terms that we don’t normally hear, even in the crucible of politics, talking about in – by Michael Cohen, I mean – talking about that he was essentially, you know, brainwashed. That’s not his word, but he was – he was part – he was devoted and devout in the service of Donald Trump, and that that led him to commit all sorts of dirty deeds, as he put it. The president, you know, insisted Michael Cohen should have known what he was doing was against the law. And I think you have a – in the case of what Michael Cohen is saying, that Donald Trump certainly knew about it and nothing happened at Trump Tower without his knowledge, that is definitely the experience for those of us who have covered him and his business and his relationship with someone like Michael Cohen for a very long time.
Where this goes now I think remains to be seen. I think the question is does Michael Cohen get called before Congress to say these things again, you know, facing possible perjury charges if he lies under oath? Remember, that’s something that he pleaded to, or lying to Congress is something that he pleaded guilty to a few weeks ago. What does he do? How much more potential damage does he cause the president before he goes down?
MR. COSTA: How does the White House stop that damage, Maggie? When you talk about Rudy Giuliani and the White House, are they – is there a high level of anxiety about this argument they’re now making that it was a personal matter, not a campaign matter? Do they feel like that’s going to hold?
MS. HABERMAN: It’s bifurcated. Take out the White House and insert Trump and his private lawyers and people at The Trump Organization. The White House is operating as if this is not happening. It’s sort of yet another day in this administration for people who are staff members there. For the president, for his legal team, for people at The Trump Organization, it’s a very different ballgame. You have Rudy Giuliani trying to suggest that, you know, this was a private transaction, that Michael Cohen is a liar, that he was disloyal to the president and made that clear in the fact that he secretly tape-recorded him, a tape recording that – or audio recording that has become a key piece of evidence in this case, and we know that it was used by prosecutors. They are arguing that the president does not have any legal exposure. He certainly has legal exposure. Whether that means he’s in legal jeopardy I think remains to be seen.
MR. COSTA: That is so true.
MS. HABERMAN: Again, their argument is you can’t believe anything Michael Cohen says, and yet the government clearly did believe him on this issue and said that it was corroborated, his statements, by other pieces of evidence.
MR. COSTA: Well, part of the reason – that’s a smart point because part of the reason the government seems to back up Michael Cohen here, Jeff, is you have David Pecker from the National Enquirer and American Media saying – cooperating with the government and saying Michael Cohen is telling a straight story.
JEFF ZELENY: Right, and that, I think, was – when you sum up everything that happened this week – and these weeks get confusing because there’s so many internal movements. The David Pecker news, I think, he’s not a household name by any means, but the National Enquirer certainly is. He’s a longtime friend of the president. The president has been utterly silent about David Pecker, but he has a cooperation agreement and an immunity agreement. And this is why the prosecutors believe Michael Cohen is telling the truth, because it corroborates this story. So I think that we learned this week – confirmed this week that President Trump was in the room – Donald Trump, candidate Trump, was in the room during those conversations. So that’s why this week I think is different than other weeks. That’s why this week I think matters more, because you see so many friends of the president who now are agreeing – cooperating with prosecutors, and that has to get to the president. You can see it in his demeanor. You can see it in his actions. You talk to people behind the scenes, it bothers him in that respect. I mean, we’ve seen so many times the president has dismissed aides – I wasn’t that close to Paul Manafort. That’s somewhat true. But not this week. Michael Cohen and David Pecker, longtime friends of this – of this president.
MR. COSTA: And you brought up that President Trump was in the room the summer of 2015. Kristen, does that point to the president’s conduct not just during the closing days of the campaign, but for two years now being under scrutiny from prosecutors?
KRISTEN WELKER: It points to his deepening involvement in this, Bob, there’s no doubt about that. That was two months after candidate Trump had announced his candidacy for the presidency. And so I think that that is what is so striking about the fact that we now know, according to our sources, that he was in that room when they were discussing ways to quash these stories by women making these allegations against then-candidate Trump. Now, we don’t know specifically what Trump was saying in those meetings. I think it’s important to point that out. But again, you’re starting to see puzzle pieces come together. And that’s why I think President Trump, the White House increasingly concerned about the potential legal exposure, but also the political peril that President Trump may be in. Publicly he’s said, look, he’s not concerned about this, he’s not concerned about impeachment – the I-word, of course, what all of Washington has started to talk about. But privately he’s started to tell his friends and his allies that he is concerned, that he worries it could be a real possibility.
MR. COSTA: What about, Seung Min, when you think about – we also learned this week about information gathered from the raid of Cohen’s office and home this year launched yet another criminal investigation into the Trump Inaugural Committee. When you’re up on Capitol Hill talking to Republicans, what do they think about this now being added to mix and all of the Cohen news on top of it?
SEUNG MIN KIM: They are just overwhelmed, like – (laughs) – well, like we are, with all the legal woes. And I think a lot of – it’s getting difficult – you can tell, it’s getting more difficult for congressional Republicans to buy into the president’s explanations, because we’ve seen, particularly regarding the Cohen information, that his explanation about whether he knew of the payments at all or whether he directed them, they’ve just shifted so much over time.
And I had a lot of interesting conversations with – particularly with Republican senators about can you believe this president anymore, when he tweets on Thursday morning that he never directed Cohen to make these payments. You know, can you buy that explanation? And you get varying answers. His allies will say yes, I do trust him. Look at Cohen. He is not a valid source either. Others say, we got to let all the prosecutors, both in New York and Washington, do their work. Or others saying, look, we like his policies. Let’s kind of brush that stuff aside.
But on the Democratic end, you’re just getting more ammunition. Again, they are still kind of afraid to touch that I-word. It’s pretty politically toxic for a lot of members of their party. But they’re seeing a little bits here and there from each legal filing. Potential impeachment fodder? You have Jerry Nadler saying certainly these look like impeachable offenses should that prove out to be true. I was having some conversations with a Democratic senator, who – obviously, they will remain in the minority – don’t have control of the Senate to do investigations. But he is writing a letter saying: I want DOJ to reevaluate whether – their guidance that a sitting president can’t be indicted. There’s a lot going on here.
MR. COSTA: Maggie, what do you make of that? The Republican Party seems to be holding for now behind President Trump. But will that base stick with this president amid what’s happened with Michael Cohen? The president’s changed his story. Do those Trump voters care?
MS. HABERMAN: I think right now they don’t care. I think your point, though, is an important one that I was thinking about before, which is that he has changed his story. This is – this president is very used to leading a consequence-free life, where he can say basically whatever he wants and there are minimal ramifications for it. And I think this is the first week where we are seeing he is just hitting a – sort of a harder wall of reality, given what happened with Michael Cohen.
I do think that his base is going to say, this is a personal issue. This is a private matter. This is his private life. This is his marriage. I think if it stays here, I think in all likelihood Republicans continue to stand by the president. I think we just don’t know what else Michael Cohen has told investigators and prosecutors. And I think that is going to come out in the – in the coming weeks and months. And I think that is the big threat for the president. And also remember, the president’s advisors have always viewed the Michael Cohen case as more perilous to the president than the Mueller case. They always believed that that’s was where there was vulnerability. And I don’t think the vulnerability necessarily ends with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
MR. COSTA: And, Maggie, on that point, you’re the scholar of all things Trump. We know David Pecker’s cooperating. We know Michael Cohen’s cooperating. Allen Weisselberg, the long-time finance head of The Trump Organization, he’s been pretty quiet.
MS. HABERMAN: Yes. He’s been pretty quiet, but he – what he has been doing is being pretty careful about getting his own lawyer, which is not nothing. We reported over the weekend that he is no longer being represented by the group counsel representing The Trump Organization, Alan Futerfas. He has his own attorney now, Allen Weisselberg. He is the person who has worked for The Trump Organization for over 30 years. He was the one who truly was involved in all of these deals, in all of these expenditures.
He knows basically where every penny has gone. He was involved in the Trump Foundation, which the New York state attorney general is looking at. He handled the Trump private trust, which essentially is the president’s own personal money once he took office. And he knows where everything is spent in the business. This is going to be a pressure point that prosecutors are going to try to squeeze. And people around the president are very concerned about it.
MR. COSTA: Speaking about squeeze, if you’re a House Democrat right now, forget about Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation. You could say there’s a felony right here in all these sentencing documents. Could the Democrats say next year – maybe they wait a little while. I know you say they’re being careful. But maybe they say this is enough for impeachment.
MR. ZELENY: And that’ll be the test for House Democrats, but there’s a lot of wise House Democrats or former Democrats who say: Slow down, allow the investigation to proceed, don’t get yourselves in the middle of all of this. And I think I was struck by the advice of Rahm Emanuel, of course, you know, the mayor of Chicago, but long-time House Democrat, and certainly lived through the Clinton White House. He urged the Democrats in the House to focus on the Cabinet, other things, not the president. We’ll see.
But in terms of one word the president said this week that I’ve not heard him say before, he they were trying to embarrass me. To me, that was a sign, taking us back to maybe the Bill Clinton stuff, it’s just about sex. What we learned though this week, every facet of Donald Trump’s life is likely now being investigated – the inaugural committee, the super PAC, The Trump Organization, and indeed his White House. So it’s more than just the hush money. So I think the campaign finance violation, it’s more glamorous maybe, more sexy, if you will. But I think there are signs this week that there are more deepening worries to come for this White House.
MR. COSTA: Is the White House ready for this political storm? On Friday, the president announced Mick Mulvaney, the budget director, will be his acting chief of staff. But from the chief of staff position to the White House Counsel’s Office, are they prepared for this storm?
MS. WELKER: I think you raise the critical point. It’s not clear that they are, Bob. It’s not clear that they have an apparatus in place to deal with what we know is coming from Democrats. They are unified on one point, which is that they think that there should be more oversight of this president. And so there are going to be investigations and likely subpoenas as well. And it’s not clear that he has a team in place to deal with that. You mentioned Mick Mulvaney. We got that announcement at the end of the day today, that he’s going to serve as the acting chief of staff. There was a very rocky process to get here today. Remember his first pick, Nick Ayers, talks with him fell apart. This is a 36-year-old political upstart who everyone thought would be jumping at the chance for the job. And there have been a lot of twists and turns along the way. The president felt like he needed to have someone in that role to start to sort of brace for what is coming in the new year.
MR. COSTA: Maggie, real quick, what’s your read on the Mulvaney appointment?
MS. HABERMAN: I think that the president engaged in fair amount of willful misdirection about where he was going with this. But I think that as one administration official put it to me that, you know, it was the eternal plan B is Mick Mulvaney. He was already wearing two different hats for two different jobs. And now he is taking on, you know, another one. Look, I think he is somebody who fit – checks a fair number of boxes for the president that he was looking for. He is a former member of Congress, so he can at least help him understand and navigate certain aspects of what’s coming when you have the change of the guard, the House Democratic majority taking over. And he is somebody who the president personally is comfortable with. They’ve played many rounds of golf together. You know, he is somebody who has a rapport with the president.
What he is not is sort of the scrappy type of fighter that you would have seen in a Chris Christie, or some other choices. And he is somebody who knows the building, which I think appeals to the president. He is not somebody who’s going to have to take some time to come in. And I think by calling him “acting” the president gave himself some flexibility. He can – he didn’t put a time limit on it. He can stretch – acting can suddenly last into 2020, or acting could be, you know, a couple of months long, and I don’t think we know where it’s going to go. I do think that it is interesting that he would not have Nick Ayers as the acting chief of staff or interim, which is what Nick Ayers had been from the very beginning of that negotiation, as I understand it, saying he would do, is roughly six months. The president didn’t want that. It was a time limit he rejected. But he is OK with this one, because it’s on his own terms. There is a lot more to this story than we know.
MR. COSTA: In mid-December he wanted to make a move, Kristen said and as you just said so well. But it was not just Michael Cohen and the chief of staff news this week. There was a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. The Senate voted to withdraw U.S. military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen as punishment for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Lawmakers also agreed to overhaul how sexual misconduct allegations against members of Congress are handled. But the issue that hovers is the possibility of a partial government shutdown next Friday. In the Oval Office this week, there was a spirited exchange, to say the least, as the president and Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi sparred over a spending bill. The president’s demanding 5 billion (dollars) to build a border wall. Democrats say they’re willing to provide up to 1.6 billion (dollars).
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) One thing I think we can agree on is we shouldn’t shut down the government over a dispute. And you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Oh, no, no, no. I am proud to shut down the government for border security.
MR. COSTA: Seung Min, are we going to have a shutdown next week, or it’s going to be a stopgap that keeps the government funded for a few weeks and it’s a fight for divided government next year?
MS. KIM: Well, things don’t look great at this point, I will say, a week out from a potential shutdown. There has been some discussion already, particularly from Richard Shelby, who is the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, a powerful guy in the mix, that some kind of stopgap funding through, perhaps, the beginning of the new year, through January 3rd, might be necessary to avert a partial government shutdown. But it is fascinating how the two sides are just so dug in. And, look, there was probably a less than 1 percent chance that Democrats would agree on $5 billion of border wall, even before that remarkable Oval Office exchange. And now, after Trump proudly said he would take ownership for a shutdown, there is a zero chance.
And there is no – there is barely a constituency on Capitol Hill for instigating a shutdown for border wall funding, like the president wants. Perhaps some of his allies in the House Freedom Caucus are willing to go with that. But I talked to a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill this week just about that remarkable Oval Office moment and his owning that shutdown, and I found John Cornyn, the number two in the Senate from Texas, comments to me remarkable. He just said flat out to me I don’t understand the strategy; maybe he’ll explain it, but I don’t get it.
MR. COSTA: The White House even seemed to walk it back, Kristen.
MS. WELKER: The president seemed to walk it back in a tweet the very next day, saying, look, we don’t want a shutdown, hopefully Democrats will do the right thing. It was almost as though he realized he’d gone –
MR. COSTA: Would he accept a deal that’s a little less than 5 billion (dollars)? Would he accept even a 1.6, 2 billion (dollars)?
MS. WELKER: I think so. I think so. I’ve been speaking to White House officials who haven’t said that exactly, but they’ve said he wants a better deal. They won’t get into the figures with me, but it is clear they don’t want to own a shutdown. As we were just saying, bottom line is Republicans don’t want to own that and the president doesn’t really feel as though he has the leverage. And so I think if they can find a way to find some type of common ground, perhaps that would avert a shutdown. But to your point, what’s most likely is that stopgap measure.
MR. COSTA: That scene inside of the Oval Office – a silent Vice President Pence, the sparring between the daughter of a former Baltimore mayor, now San Francisco likely Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President Trump from New York, Chuck Schumer from New York – is that a preview of 2019, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: I think it is. And of all the extraordinary scenes we have seen in the Oval Office, and there have been a lot of them, this certainly is a window into what’s to come. I think a lot of – all three of the participants, and four if you count the silent vice president – (laughter) – learned how the dynamic is different. President Trump has never been confronted like that in his house, in his Oval Office. He’s largely surrounded himself by aides who are generally in agreement. Certainly, the Republican leaders of Congress have been. But it’s clear, A, why the Republicans weren’t invited, because he wanted that moment too. Don’t forget that was supposed to be off-camera. He invited the cameras in. So all sides were, you know, showing off a little bit. A, it solidified Nancy Pelosi’s speakership position, you know, or certainly helped her toward that. But this is a window into the fact that President Trump is not going to get everything he wants. But an unspoken dynamic there was the one between Schumer and Pelosi, which we don’t talk a lot about; we’ll talk about it next year, but that is interesting as well. So I wonder if the president will try and divide them at all, but they cannot give him an inch. His presidency could have been so much different had he started with infrastructure with his old friend Chuck Schumer, but that’s water under the bridge.
MR. COSTA: Seung Min, a moment for Leader Pelosi. She fends off a moderate rebellion, rebels inside of her conference, almost immediately after that whole meeting.
MS. KIM: Exactly, and this is one of the arguments that she and her allies have been making all along. Look, she is a fighter. She has been at the top of the House Democratic ranks for 16 years. She has negotiated with multiple presidents. She knows what she’s doing and she’s the best vote-counter on the Hill. You can’t have a newbie in the position that she was in, on that couch, sparring with President Trump. And a combination of that moment plus the fact that she was able to agree to – she was able to come to a deal with these so-called rebels who are threatening her potential speakership by essentially term-limiting herself, says she’ll be out by 2022, that really helped her solidify just her hold on that gavel. I mean, we’ve talked on the show for weeks now how we all expect Nancy Pelosi to get there, we just didn’t know how, and she did.
MR. COSTA: Maggie, when you think about the real story here, there is the political theater of everything we all watch, but we also heard that President Trump was on the phone with Leader Pelosi hours after that whole scene talking through a possible deal. We saw a criminal justice reform bill get some real action this week on Capitol Hill. Beyond the theater, is this a president who could be pretty transactional next year, or not?
MS. HABERMAN: Oh, I think – I think if he’s able to be, almost definitely. And as we know, he tends to treat everything as if it’s an open-ended negotiation. I mean, that – you put it very well, what happened in the Oval Office was theater, and he got something out of it. You know, he had a base that was rather upset about that criminal justice reform bill going through, and so he got to look tough about the wall, which was a core campaign promise. And Nancy Pelosi got what she wanted, which was taking the fight to him. And then, of course, they’re back on the phone in sort of old-school style trying to work something out. I think that he is going to do what he can to be transactional. I don’t – I think that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are going to have the leverage in that relationship, especially if they – to Jeff’s good point – if they stick together. And so I think that while the president feels like he can extract all kinds of concessions, he’s just not in a position to get that much right now. I mean, witness them talking about this stopgap measure to avert a shutdown that will allow him to leave, nobody – and go on vacation to Palm Beach. Nobody – he doesn’t want a shutdown, the Democrats don’t want a shutdown, and I think that where you are going to see him behaviorally is going to be very different than what we have seen over the last few years.
MR. COSTA: That’s such a sharp point. The president wants to go to Mar-a-Lago, play some golf, see some family. Members want to go home. Is this all about, on both sides, scoring points and cutting a deal?
MR. ZELENY: Sure, and I mean, Congress is not working through the weekend. All members of Congress, House and Senate, were leaving Washington on Friday. They’re coming back Monday night, Tuesday. So, no, like every shutdown, right, before this, you get the sense that something will be worked out. The question here, though, is, you know, is the president – is his word ever going to be good? He said he would own it. You know, you always have to leave open the window of possibility that he may do something unpredictable. But in this sense, right before Christmas, I don’t think he wants to spoil Christmas.
MS. WELKER: Well, I think that’s right. This is a president who understands optics. He’s a genius when it comes to that in many ways. And imagine the optics of a government shutdown, even if it’s partial, on Christmas Day. That’s going to be tough for President Trump politically, and I think one of the pressure points is they don’t really have a plan B for reopening the government. When you talk to folks inside the White House and on Capitol Hill and you say what if there is a government shutdown, well, it’s likely going to go through the new year. And one Republican said to me if that happens we could lose the support of the country.
MR. COSTA: We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thanks, everybody, for joining us, really appreciate it. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find it on your favorite podcast app or download it from our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and have a great weekend.