Special: Ex-Trump attorney’s tapes and alleged Russian agent indicted

Jul. 20, 2018 AT 9:42 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed Friday's New York Times report alleging that Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, secretly recorded a conversation with the president. The roundtable’s conversation also turned to the headlines surrounding Maria Butina, the latest Russian charged with interfering in American politics.

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ROBERT COSTA: Hello, I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra , where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.

Joining me around the table, Yamiche Alcindor or the PBS NewsHour ; Dan Balz of The Washington Post ; Margaret Brennan, moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation ; and Jonathan Swan of Axios .

The New York Times reported Friday that President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen secretly recorded his conversation about payment to a former model before the 2016 presidential election. The woman, Karen McDougal, claims she and Mr. Trump had a 10-month affair that began in 2006.

Per the report, the FBI confiscated the tapes as part of their probe into Cohen’s role in providing payments to women who claim they have had affairs with Trump. Such payments, depending on how and why they were made, could be violations of federal campaign finance law, according to many legal experts.

Is this a big turn in the Cohen-Trump relationship, Jonathan?

JONATHAN SWAN: Well, I think the relationship had already turned and not in a good direction. But you guys reported this at The Post that this is Michael Cohen’s modus operandi and, you know, this was what he does, right? He records conversations surreptitiously.

Our understanding is that the president, you know, no surprise, he wasn’t aware that he was being recorded. So the next obvious question is, what else has been recorded? What other tapes exist? Has he been taping phone conversations, incidental conversations around the office?

Rudy Giuliani is putting on a very brave face, the president’s attorney, and saying that it’s exculpatory, et cetera, et cetera. Well, now the next question is, is it? Because Lanny Davis told us, Michael Cohen’s attorney, that, you know, wait until you hear the tape. And so then you get into the celebrity lawyering where everyone is teasing every bit of information.

But I think we have two facts. One is that Michael Cohen, by all appearances, the bond of loyalty that he has with the president has been severed and he is signaling that very, very loudly. And the second part of it is the guy records a lot so there’s probably a lot out there.

MR. COSTA: What’s the political cost, if any? Remember Access Hollywood from the campaign? Many people thought it would be the episode that changed the election; it didn’t change the election.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think it’s really going to come down to what the ‒ what the tapes actually prove. Is there actual criminal issues going on there? If there is something that the president did, some law, some campaign finance law that he broke, I think learning about more women ‒ and just, obviously, we don’t know if that’s true ‒ but I don’t think that that’s ‒ that hasn’t proven to hurt the president, whatever extramarital affairs he’s been having, whatever adult film stars he’s dealing with. None of that seems to matter to people, including Evangelical voters who are looking at the Supreme Court and just very, very happy at the fact that this might be turning into a pro-life Supreme Court.

So I think it’s really going to have to come down to whether or not he broke any laws. I don’t think morality speaking that anything is going to change there.

MR. COSTA: Margaret, when you talk to foreign policy officials and they think about the president being somewhat isolated as he makes foreign policy, are they factoring in that he has all these legal clouds around him, the Russia investigation, the Michael Cohen situation? Do they feel like that’s putting pressure on him or at least influencing the way he thinks through foreign policy?

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, some of this is a function of time we’re in and some of it is a function of the news cycle we’re in. But I’m constantly asking diplomats, like, OK, so what did you actually, like, cable home about? Because there was so much news this week and you’re, like, this is global news at all times. This story, along with the next thing, is not just domestic politics anymore, this is sort of moment by moment the world watching what’s happening to the Trump presidency and questioning each time, well, will this be a turning point that turns us more back towards a predictable, normal presidency in any way? And the answer consistently has been no, that none of these things ultimately cause enough of a political cost that they change the president’s calculus.

But when it comes to questioning who is influencing the president, that’s always what foreign officials are trying to figure out. Who is he listening to now? Does Ambassador Bolton truly have his ear? John Kelly? Perhaps not so much this week.

Secretary Pompeo seems to be safely ensconced there and very much channeling the president when he speaks.

MR. COSTA: I remember going to Trump Tower with you, Dan. Michael Cohen was a constant presence at Trump Tower. I remember the president’s rage that was reflected in the reporting when Cohen’s hotel room and office were raided. There’s something about Michael Cohen and this president that seems to personalize the whole situation.

DAN BALZ: It does. But as Jonathan said, the notion that Michael Cohen, who has been so incredibly loyal to President Trump, has signaled that that’s no longer the case.

I don’t know what this is going to mean in the great scheme of things. But to see a relationship like that ruptured by all of these investigations I think is just one sign of the collateral damage that all of this has done to Trumpworld. And whether it, again, whether it has any real political effect, I don’t know. I think Yamiche is right. So far, there’s no evidence that these kinds of things ‒ you know, people have kind of baked it into their assessment.

But what it says at kind of a human level of the way this president has affected lots of different people is so fascinating.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the criminal indictment of a Russian woman who was charged with acting as a foreign agent of the Kremlin and of conspiracy against the United States.

Twenty-nine-year-old Maria Butina has been living in Washington, D.C. under a student visa. And according to court filings, she tried to infiltrate and influence U.S. political organizations and operatives on behalf of the Russian Federation, primarily through her connections with the National Rifle Association. She leveraged those links with the NRA’s leadership to foster relationships with American politicians, business leaders, and even tried to establish a communications channel between then candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Is this case a reflection of how Russia has such extensive activity within the U.S.?

MS. BRENNAN: It sounds like a screenplay, doesn’t it, with all these colorful characters in it. Some of what is described here is, yes, it’s similar to just sort of, you know, a playbook for an influence campaign of some sort. Is this Vladimir Putin’s master network? Probably not. But it shows that the value that is ‒ the value that is placed on information and influence, blackmail, et cetera. Her supposed relationships with people who are lobbyists or access to, potentially, congressmen here raised more questions about who else may be influenced.

Separately and apart from this, Microsoft said today that they had discovered three ‒ at least three attempts to access information by GRU military intelligence officers on congressional offices. So this influence campaign from Vladimir Putin? It’s not as colorful as the story we just heard about, but it is ongoing and it is something that very much is of concern to intelligence officials in this country.

MR. COSTA: Maria Butina was not just trying to talk to lawmakers, she was talking to members of the conservative movement. And that’s been an interesting curveball with this story, that the NRA and other conservative groups, CPAC ‒ she appeared there as a guest, at least an attendee, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington ‒ it shows that it’s not just about working the formal political channels, but also the outside groups.

MS. ALCINDOR: It tells you that foreign countries, they look at the United States and even they can see that there are actors outside of elected officials who are having a lot of influence on what laws are being passed, on how people are speaking on the House floor, on why people are making the votes that they’re making.

She quickly looked at the Republican landscape and realized that the NRA was some place that she needed to be in order to influence people. So going forward, we look at the midterms, we look at even 2020, you realize that there are players outside of maybe the big names that you see giving speeches on the ‒ on the Congress floor, you realize that there are going to be a lot of other organizations to look at.

MR. COSTA: When the White House thinks about Maria Butina, maybe they’re not thinking hard about the whole controversy. But they also have Paul Manafort’s trial starting next week. And as they deal with all the foreign policy fallout, what are you hearing about their outlook on the Russia investigation and all these criminal investigations?

MR. SWAN: Well, any of us who cover the White House know that they don’t talk about it. They just internally they avoid talking about it amongst themselves. I remember when Ty Cobb used to be the lawyer in there and they used to say I’m going to go to Russia to go to his office downstairs in the thing. And that was ‒ I thought that was a really funny sort of insight because it was this foreign land, walking through I think it was Jess Ditto’s office to get to Ty Cobb downstairs ‒ “I’m going to Russia.”

And really, like, it’s not something that they’re sitting around kibitzing about, Manafort and whatever. They’re all just sort of like this and some of them are worried about their own legal expenses. Most of them were trying to stay out of Russia-related stories so that they wouldn’t get into legal trouble.

But just a couple of points on Maria Butina. One thing that really struck me by reading this story was just the amateurishness of the operation, which makes it hard for me to think that this was the cutting edge of Russian intelligence. I mean, she was emailing thought bubbles to this guy Paul Erickson. They were DM’ing. I mean, it’s all out there. It’s sort of like “I’m going to hack into America,” sort of. I mean, it’s not ‒ it’s not much more sophisticated than that ‒ $125,000 ‒ but they got pretty far. I mean, she was hobnobbing with Donald Trump Jr. at the NRA.

And it kind of shows two things. One, you can get pretty far with a pretty dinky operation, so Lord knows what their actual sophisticated actors, where they are, where they’re embedded in our government.

MR. COSTA: Final thought, Dan. We can’t even get ‒ we didn’t even get to it in the show. The president still faces big choices this summer. Does he sit for an interview with Robert Mueller and the special counsel or not as all these trials go on and indictments happen? What does the ‒ what does the president face now as he looks ahead on the Mueller investigation?

MR. BALZ: Well, he faces uncertainty. I mean, everybody who’s covered this story likes to think we have some sense of what Mueller is doing and has, but we also always issue the caveat he’s got way more than we know that he’s got. We don’t know where that’s going. We don’t know whether he’s found any strong evidence of collusion. There’s all kinds of datapoints that point to it, but that’s different than something that you have to do in a legal sense or that you would present to Congress for them to consider.

But the president also has a very critical midterm election coming up. I mean, this is an election that could change the course of his presidency. If the Democrats take over the House, if there is a demonstrable blue wave, and I’m not saying there will be, but if there is, he’s going to face an entirely different landscape here in Washington and we are going to move directly into the presidential campaign of 2020. We are going to be at war in a way that we aren’t even at this point, politically.

And so I think that his focus necessarily will have to be on, how do we prevent that from happening? What are the steps he can do proactively, defensively or whatever, to try to prevent that from happening?

MS. BRENNAN: And that is what is so interesting when you try to understand why that language of using “witch hunt, witch hunt” constantly to refer to this probe is of political value, because if things go like Dan was just saying and there is possibly an impeachment proceeding in the future, getting people to vote along party lines, sort of just instinctively rather than to weigh evidence, can be ‒ or, you know, any potential charges, could be of value here. Right? That was the playbook from the Clinton era, make people think this is all just dirty politics, not that there’s substance to any of these allegations or investigations.

MR. BALZ: I’ll say one other thing. And that is that, as you talk to people around the country, just ordinary people, the Russia investigation is virtually impossible for them to understand on a day-to-day basis, and so they’ve tuned out a lot of it. And as a result, I think that the messaging by the president and Giuliani have certainly had an effect on the president’s base, which will, if this comes to pass, will show up as, OK, this is all part of fake news. And that ‒ and that will further inflame the political environment.

MS. BRENNAN: And the White House knows that. I had a White House official say to me you guys all talk about Rudy Giuliani not being on message or not being clear in his language here, we think he’s really effective because of that, that confusion level.

MR. COSTA: Because every comment, even if it’s inelegant, he’s taking an axe to Mueller’s credibility, or at least trying to.

MS. BRENNAN: Yeah.

MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra .

While you’re online, check out my blog post about our new set and take the Washington Week -ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.

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