tv Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer CNN December 13, 2018 3:00pm-4:00pm PST
spending by the trump inauguration is under investigation by federal prosecutors. did top donors give money in exchange for access to the new president? passing the buck. mr. trump is desperately trying to distance himself from michael cohen after being implicated in some of his former fixer's crimes. tonight he's breaking his silence about cohen's sentencing in a new interview that twists the truth. and kremlin cooperator. an alleged russian spy pleads guil guilty. we're going to tell you about the new revelations in her cooperation deal. we want to welcome our viewers in the united states and around the world. i'm wolf blitzer. you're in "the situation room." we're following two major breaking stories right now involving president trump and potential illegal activity.
a source telling cnn that mr. trump was present at a 2015 meeting when his former fixer, michael cohen, discussed hush money payments with the publisher of the "national enquirer," david pecker. that would mean the president was personally aware of and involved in payments later found to have violated campaign finance laws. also breaking, cnn confirms the trump inauguration committee is now under federal investigation. "the wall street journal" reports it's a criminal probe into possible misuse of funds and attempts by donors to buy influence with the incoming administration. i'll get reaction from congress and eric swalwell, a member of the intelligence and judiciary committees. our correspondents and analysts are standing by. right now let's go to our chief white house correspondent, jim acosta. jim, we have new and powerful
evidence tonight of the president's direct involvement in those payments to silence women who claimed they had affairs with him. >> reporter: that's right, wolf. tonight there is new information tieing president trump to the scheme to pay off his alleged mistresses just before the 2016 election. cnn has learned the president as a candidate witness standas a p meeting aimed at limit is damaging stories about those affairs. president trump is in damage control on all of this. as often the case, the president's facts are outnumbered by the falsehoods. >> everybody in? >> reporter: tonight cnn confirmed the president attended an august 2015 meeting where the candidate along with his attorney michael cohen and david pecker discussed ways to downplay stories about the gop's relationship with women that can damage the campaign. earlier in the day the president maintained he wasn't aware of any kind of financial arrangement he had made with the tabloid. >> i have to go check. i don't think they even paid any money to that tabloid, okay?
i don't think we made a payment to that tabloid. i was asking the question. i don't think we made a payment. >> reporter: in an interview with fox, the president claimed federal prosecutors in new york were out to embarrass him by forcing cohen to admit he paid hush money to a porn star and a playboy playmate just before the 2016 election. >> what he did was all unrelated to me except for the two campaign finance charges that are not criminal and should not have been in there. they put those two charges in there to embarrass me. they're not criminal charges. >> reporter: that's not true. cohen said the payments mr. trump directed him to make were crimes. the enquirer was also part of the hush money scheme. the president seemed to have an answer for all of that as well, insisting it was cohen's job not to break the law. >> let me tell you, i never directed him to do anything wrong. whatever he did he did on his own. he's a lawyer, a lawyer who represents a client is supposed
to do the right thing. that's why you pay them a lot of money. >> reporter: yet even as the president said he relied on cohen to stay out of hot water, he mocked his former fixer's legal skills. >> he did very low level work, more public relations than law. you would see him on television. he was okay on television. >> reporter: the president tends to downplay the roles of his former aides to find themselves in legal jeopardy. consider what he tweeted about george papadopoulos. few people knew the young low level volunteer named george who was proven to be a liar. he referred to paul manafort, now a convicted felon. >> he worked for me for a very short period of time. >> reporter: he did defend michael flynn who's asking for no prison time. >> they took a general that they said didn't lie and they convinced him he did lie and he made some kind of a deal and now they're recommending no time.
>> reporter: that's not exactly true. flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with the russians during the transition period in late 2016. yet, the president repeated that claim later in the day. >> the fbi said michael flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn't lie. mueller said, well, maybe he did. now they're all having a big dispute. >> reporter: the president was spreading other falsehoods away from the russia investigation, claiming once again that mexico will somehow pay for a border wall, tweeting, i often stated one way or the other mexico is going to pay for the wall. this has never changed. our new deal with mexico and canada is so much better than the very old and costly anti-usa nafta deal. just by the money we saved, mexico is paying for the wall. democrats are saying hold on. >> what money is he talking about that's going to pay for the wall? it just doesn't measure up. >> reporter: the president also claimed today that he's making progress in a search for a new white house chief of staff,
telling reporters he's down to five candidates. sources tell us that the outgoing chief of staff john kelly has confided that he's relieved that he's leaving his post. it's no wonder why in light of michael cohen. the white house is not commenti commenting. in the last few moments the white house press secretary sarah sanders was talking to reporters on the driveway outside the white house here. she was asked about this new criminal investigation into the president's inauguration in early 2017, january 2017. sarah sanders telling reporters just a few moments ago that that investigation does not deal with the president. top aides and people that are close to the president may well be under investigation, wolf. >> we're going to get a lot more in just a few moments. jim acosta, thanks very much. let's talk about our new reporting of the president being in the room when michael cohen and david pecker discussed hush money back in 2015.
mj lee, how significant is this breaking news? >> reporter: what is significant tonight is that now we have confirmed all of the three actors who were in that meeting in august 2015. let's walk through the three people that we know attended that meeting. ami of course confirmed yesterday that they had met with david pecker, the chairman of ami, met with michael cohen, as well as another member of the trump campaign and this was their discussion to come up with a strategy to kill stories that were potentially unflattering for then candidate trump. second of course, michael cohen's involvement in this meeting, we have known about this since the summer when he pleaded guilty, among other things, to at least two campaign finance violations involving these hush payments. and now, today cnn is able to confirm that donald trump himself was also in that august 2015 meeting in that room with david pecker and michael cohen to discuss, again, a strategy to try to come up with a plan to kill stories, stories
particularly about women who claim that they had relationships with donald trump. all of this again heading into the 2016 election. >> this clearly makes it harder for the president to deny any knowledge of these hush money payments. >> reporter: look, frankly, i think that train left the station a long time ago, wolf. it is basically impossible for donald trump at this point to argue that he had no knowledge about these payments and i think what is so significant, if you look at the last 24 hours or so, take a close look at the words that donald trump has chosen to address the michael cohen prison sentencing yesterday. he said, i never directed michael cohen to do anything wrong. i never directed michael cohen to do anything illegal. frankly, it doesn't matter if donald trump argued that he literally never told michael cohen to do something wrong or do something illegal. if you look at the other actors that are involved in this plan and what they are saying, they have all confirmed that the purpose of those payments was political. so every piece of the puzzle right now, wolf, points to the
fact that the purpose of these payments was political and this is not the narrative that donald trump of course is sticking to. >> mj, the agreement says that ami, the american media incorporated, the parent company of the "national enquirer," will continue to cooperate with prosecutors, so how damaging could that be to the president? >> reporter: the fact that ami is committed to cooperating in the future, not just in the past, of course suggests that they could have information that is important to investigators, potentially about other stories that they may have tried to kill on behalf of donald trump. frankly, if more information like that were to come to light, that would not be surprising. this is not a narrative where it appears as though there was only one or two or three stories. you could very well believe that there were other stories that ami was involved in and planning with michael cohen, with donald trump and perhaps others to try to kill heading into the election so that donald trump could avoid unflattering stories. of course we don't know exactly
how ami is going to cooperate with investigators but the fact that they are committed to future cooperation is very, very significant. >> david pecker may have received immunity in exchange for their full cooperation. thanks very much. now to breaking news involving the federal investigation now under way of the president's inauguration committee. "the wall street journal" first reporting about a criminal probe into possible misuse of funds and donors attempting to buy influence with the incoming administration. let's bring in cara skadell working the story for us. you confirmed there is an investigation. how did it unfold? >> reporter: wolf, right, we've confirmed that the u.s. attorney's office in manhattan is investigating the spending of the trump inauguration fund and that fundraised over $100 million which was twice as much money that was raised during obama's inauguration. so what t"the wall street journal" is reporting is that this began in part at least from the raid of michael cohen,
trump's former personal attorney of course, and out of information they received from that raid, a recording that was obtained of michael cohen having a conversation with a woman who worked on events for the inauguration and during that conversation, according to the journal, she was expressing some concern about how the money was being spent. the journal said it did not know when the recording occurred but their sources tell them that the information began in part out of the raid of michael cohen. >> what's the relationship between the special counsel and possible links to foreign money? >> reporter: well, we know that the special counsel's office has been looking at inauguration money too to some extent. they interviewed one individual that did donate money who was related to a russian oligarch. they stopped that oligarch at the airport to ask him questions about money. they were looking to the broader question of were there donors bringing foreign money into the election through americans. now, we have not seen anything come out of that, but we do also know that rick gates, who "the
wall street journal" said did meet with the u.s. attorney's office in manhattan has pleaded guilty with the special counsel's investigation and has been cooperating with them. rick gates was at the inauguration. he was on the inauguration committee and he's been asked about that. we also know from other sources that various other people connected to the campaign were asked about donations coming into the campaign and into the inauguration, wolf. >> what are you hearing, cara, from the inaugural committee? >> we just got a statement from the inaugural committee in which they tell us that they are not aware of any pending investigations and have not been contacted by any prosecutors. we simply have no evidence the investigation exists. the names of donors were provided to the fec and have been public for nearly two years, and those donors were vetted in accordance with the law and no im proprytys have been found in regard to the vetting of those donors. the committee is saying they have not had any contact, that they're not aware of this investigation, and so that's the latest that we have from them. >> cara, thanks very much for
your reporting, working the story for us. let's talk about all the breaking news. joining us congressman eric swalwell. congressman, thanks for coming in. let's talk first of all about this new investigation, preliminary investigation into the trump inaugural committee. you saw "the wall street journal" report saying it's a criminal investigation right now. the committee raised 1$107 million and they're investigating that some of that money was misused. some of it was brought in to try to influence the incoming administration. >> it's looking more and more, wolf, that donald trump was a part of a criminal campaign, a criminal transition and now presides over a criminal presidency. remember back in august sam patton, a republican lobbyist, pled guilty for failing to register as a foreign agent for his role in trying to get a russian-ukrainian oligarch tickets to that inauguration.
there have been questions about whether they fold the rules on that campaign. this also shows that the promise that donald trump made as a candidate that he would drain the swamp has not been fulfilled if indeed they are investigating that there was a pay to play operation going on for that inauguration. >> you used the words criminal presidency. is that what you're saying? >> yeah. >> what does that mean? >> right now we have the president of the united states who is under investigation for, at the very least, obstruction of justice for the firing of james comey, for the way that he has treated jeff sessions and intimidated him to try and back off of the russia investigation or leave the office so that he could put someone else in. so, i think that -- fortunately we're not powerless to the doj policy that you can't indict a sitting president. now a new congress will be able to at least shine a light on these abuses, intervene where possible and hold the president accountable if necessary. >> so you're going to be a member of the new democratic majority in the house of representatives, on the
intelligence committee, the judiciary committee. the judiciary committee has to deal with the whole issue of impeachment. where do you stand on that? >> we'll give the president a fairer investigation than he probably deserves and he very well may be impeached, wolf, but if that's the case it's because we put together an airtight case and the american people understood why that was necessary. we're also going to seek to collaborate on issues of infrastructure, dream act, reducing gun violence, but we're not going to look the other way as republicans have before. this president, it's going to be a wakeup call that presidential immunity is over. >> you heard the president the other day saying the american people will revolt if you guys impeach him. >> he tried to goat us into talking about impeachment during the campaign. i think he sees that as an issue for his base. we stuck to what the american people care about, making sure the tax cuts didn't go to the wealthy and reducing corruption. the same thing here, we're not going to be reckless to rushing
to impeachment but we see there are red lines that can't be crossed in our democracy and we'll hold him accountable if our investigation shows that he crossed it. >> don't you think you should wait to begin impeachment proceedings until after robert mueller, the special counsel, completes his investigation? >> absolutely. it's not -- his exposure to oversight is not limited to what happened with russia. that's important. there's also cashing in on access to the oval office. seeing his tax returns will tell us whether his financial interests are driving policies in saudi arabia. also, wolf, we know that this president reduced sanctions on a chinese telecommunications firm at the same time that he received a $500 million loan on a trump tower project in indonesia. so there's a lot to look at. again, it may just be that we're intervening, but if he did cross the line we can't look the other way. >> the other breaking news we're following is that cnn has
confirmed the president was in the room when there was a conversation back in 2015 involving michael cohen, his former lawyer, david pecker, the publisher of american media incorporated, the parent company of the "national enquirer" in which the issue of hush money payments to women who allegedly had affairs with the president were discussed. then candidate donald trump was in the room. what does that say to you? >> it shows that he had knowledge. it shows also that there are two witnesses so he's outnumbered as far as the accounts here. but most importantly to me because i think what americans really care about is how this affects them, it shows that the president was a shadowy operator and if he acted that way with respect to these payoffs, we should be looking at whether he acts that way with his taxes, his finances, and the entangled us in with foreign adversaries. >> the chairman was in the
situation with me yesterday and says he wants michael cohen to come back and testify before he starts his prison term in march. what do you want to ask him? what do you think he might be able to share with your committee? >> sometimes when you interview a witness it's better to let them just do the talking, and he seems to be a witness now where you just want to ask him what happened, what did you see, what did the president hear, what did the candidate do? i think of june 1973 when john dean sat down and gave a full come clean ail kugs before the house for the watergate proceedings and i think michael cohen, because he lived in all three of trump's worlds, personal, political and financial, he knows a lot. when someone who lied before comes clean, you understand why they lied before but it puts in context all the outstanding lies that are still being told. >> bottom line, as you look at all of this, do you believe a
sitting president can be indicted? >> yes. but i also believe that the department of justice has directions a discretion and we must do all we can to make sure that we doesn't escape criminal liability just by getting re-elected or running out the clock. we should look at extending the statute of limitations, that the doj policy prevents someone from being indicted. >> thanks for coming in. >> my pleasure. breaking news continues. president trump in the room for talks about illegal hush money payments but saying he didn't order his lawyer, michael cohen, to break the law. is that a relevant defense?
we're back with break is news that the trump inauguration committee is now under federal investigation for potential financial abuses. also breaking cnn confirms that donald trump was at a 2015 when his former fixer and lawyer michael cohen discussed illegal hush money payments with the publisher of the "national enquirer," david pecker. let's bring in our analysts and talk a little bit about this story. the president was there when they originally discussed it back in 2015. how significant is this development? >> it's big. it puts him in the room with two people who said the same thing and that is that this hush money scheme was all about impacting the campaign. we know that cohen obviously got sentenced to three years in part because of his involvement in that. david pecker, the head of ami,
has been granted immunity. he's saying the same thing. if you think about when this came, this was in august of 2015, a couple of months after donald trump announces that he's going to run. the debates are starting to happen. also, as he's leading in polls as well. it also contradicts almost everything he initially said publicly about this, this idea that he didn't know anything about it, that this was all michael cohen, he didn't know where the money came from. now we know that he was in that august 2015 meeting with those two other gentlemen. it's not a good day for him and fills in a piece of the puzzle we've been wondering about. >> the president has said this is all based on advice of counsel, i took michael cohen's word for it. when you have to look at when you're looking at someone's intent is how do they behave? do they suggest consciousness of guilt? did he lie about this payment, yes, he did. did he do it openly, no, he didn't. so, he doesn't have to know what part of the federal code he's
violating to have criminal intent. he has to know that what he's doing is wrong and everything donald trump has done about this hush money payment suggests that he knew it was wrong. >> susan, how do you see it? >> i think that's right. trump has all but admitted that he actually directed cohen to make these payments so now we know that he actually was in the room for discussions. i think any effort to sort of distance himself from this is just going to fall flat. you know, his newest sort of story that, well, there was no reimbursement for this ami payment and therefore it wasn't an illegal campaign contribution, that's not legally relevant. the laws say if you agree to something and take substantial steps towards it, you actually are criminally culpable for that act. the president is trying to convince people that he hasn't violated the law here. >> the fact is david pecker and
michael cohen admit, they say as part of their agreement and if they're committing perjury that's a crime, they admit that their intent was to influence the presidential election and help donald trump get elected because if these stories about these hush money payments came out, presumably it could hurt the president's campaign. >> that's right. a week ago you might have walked into a room if you're the president and say, look, i did not want to walk into a conversation with my wife and say i paid off women. therefore, the intent of the conversation had nothing to do with the election. it was about embarrassment in the face of a conversation with my wife. obviously with this information the intent is much clearer. it's not about a private or embarrassment. it's about influencing an election. one of the hardest things in any investigation is what happened. did somebody transfer money. where's the e-mails, the phone records. the hardest thing to figure out is why they did it.
this tells me you wanted to influence the election. >> the president was suggesting that michael cohen was simply some low level guy, he tried to help him, he felt sorry for him, but why would he let some low level guy get involved in such a sensitive issue like hush money payments to women? >> that's right. it didn't make any sense that you would get somebody that you just hired 15 months ago or something into this meeting that is about such a sensitive issue. it's about a personal issue. it's about a campaign issue, at least according to the folks who were in that meeting. and listen, michael cohen has been by the president's side for more than a decade. people who covered donald trump know this. he was a gate keeper for donald trump. so this idea that somehow he's just some nobody in the way that he tried to cast george papadopoulos for instance like a coffee boy, it just doesn't pass the smell test. >> the other defense that the president makes, he insists he never directed michael cohen to break the law or to do anything wrong. how effective a defense is that
for the president? >> well, you don't have to be in charge of a criminal conspiracy to be part of a criminal conspiracy. sammy gra van know was the deputy to john gotti but they were both involved in criminal activities. that -- the fact that he didn't direct this is not legally relevant. by the way, based on what we've seen, trump may well have directed it, so that may be a lie too, but as a criminal matter it's irrelevant. >> can we hold on for just a minute about who's significant and who's not. flynn lied, who by the way walks out of the white house and says i lied. sean spicer said i lied. paul manafort lied. michael cohen lied. my point is the president can say i wasn't responsible for this. one of the things he is responsible for is what's the tone once the president of the united states representing 330 million people in the most significant democracy on the
planet walks in the white house? the tone should be when you speak to a prosecutor you speak to the truth. everybody lied. >> what do you think? >> it's all significant. ami is apparently sitting on a bunch of dirt about the president of the united states. that is a huge liability and risk for this nation. not only does it speak to his character but there actually is sort of security threats and security issues. if this is what we're seeing i think there's questions, one, about potentially other transactions, but two, what is the other substantive information that they may have been conspiring to hide. >> it's one thing the safe that the "national enquirer" has presumably with a lot of details in that safe, information they've kept over the years, catch and kill. what's even a bigger potential problem for the president, two things, the secretly recorded audio tapes that michael cohen did with various people. we know about two of them. presumably there's a lot more than that the fbi and the prosecutors have.
also, allen weisselberg has ref received immunity. he's been with the trump organization for 40 years, he's the chief financial officer. he obviously knows a lot. stick around. much more right after this. [man 1] ...this is my body of proof. [man 2] proof of less joint pain... [woman 3] ...and clearer skin. [man 3] proof that i can fight psoriatic arthritis... [woman 4] ...with humira. [woman 5] humira targets and blocks a specific source of inflammation that contributes to both joint and skin symptoms. it's proven to help relieve pain, stop further irreversible joint damage, and clear skin in many adults. humira is the number one prescribed biologic for psoriatic arthritis. [avo] humira can lower your ability to fight infections. serious and sometimes fatal infections, including tuberculosis, and cancers, including lymphoma, have happened, as have blood, liver, and nervous system problems, serious allergic reactions, and new or worsening heart failure. tell your doctor if you've been to areas where certain fungal infections are common and if you've had tb, hepatitis b, are prone to infections, or have flu-like symptoms or sores.
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president trump's inauguration committee now under criminal investigation for potential financial abuses. what a nightmare potentially this could be. >> yeah. that's right. this is an investigation into the $107 million that was raised by this inaugural committee. they're looking at whether or not any money was misspent, whether or not there were foreign contributions which of course would be illegal, also whether or not there was any pay for play, any sort of corruption where people were donating to this with an intent to get access or influence policy. what's interesting about this is this comes from the cohen tapes. we talk about how much information he might have. this comes from a conversation that he taped, that he had with a melania trump aide, was working on the inaugural committee, raising concerns. >> he secretly recorded a lot of his phone conversations. we know about two of them now, but there are a lot more that these federal prosecutors have. >> that's right. just stepping back, donald trump's campaign is under criminal investigation. his inauguration is under criminal investigation. his presidency is under criminal
investigation. his high school as far as i can tell is not under criminal investigation. it's a pretty extraordinary record and he's only been president for not even two years. >> the legal ramifications of all of this are enormous. >> there are potentially a number of different issues. as we discussed, trading money for access or for political favors, that potentially runs afoul of federal anti-corruption laws. also the inauguration is a nonprofit and so diverting funds away from a nonprofit, that also potentially is criminal. this appears to be a preliminary investigation. we're at the early stages of this. one thing i think is notable is these are the types of crimes that tend to produce lots of financial records. as we saw in the paul manafort prosecution, the strength and the sheer quantity of evidence against manafort, i do think if there is any misspending of funds, prosecutors in the southern district are likely to find it.
that said, we do appear to be at the beginning of yet another major political scandal for the president. thus far in this administration things always turn out to be a whole lot worse than they initially seem. >> what does it tell you, phil, that they started this criminal investigation of the inaugural funds as a result of that secretly recorded michael cohen phone conversation? >> this is not a nightmare, this is not a scandal, this is an early christmas gift. let's do the investigation here. number one, there's no way that this is the only conversation michael cohen knows about if, in fact, the reporting is accurate about inappropriate contributions to the campaign because people wanted pay for play. number two, cohen's cooperating, so in other words, if he knows somebody is calling in saying i'm going to give you 100 grand because i want access to the president, cohen is supposed to talk about that. the last thing, i love this, there's somebody at the other end of the phone. they don't know what cohen said and they don't know what's in
the documents in the phone conversations seized from his office. the feds are going to say, when did you call michael cohen or anybody else about contributions for the campaign or the inauguration and what did you say on that phone call. this is not a nightmare for an investigator. this is great. >> if you're the president, jeffrey, and you look at all these investigations under way, what's your biggest legal fear? >> well, i think his biggest legal fear is that his republican base will albandon him. that's what's keeping him in office. he is still very strongly supported by his republican base and i haven't seen anything in the michael cohen revelations, in this inaugural story that will shake his republican base and that means the politicians who keep him from getting -- you know, the democrats from 67 votes in the senate, they're not going anywhere so far. so if i'm donald trump, i'm worried about losing my republican base. as long as that's intact, he's
not going anywhere. >> he's got to be worried though about the incoming democratic majority in the house, the subpoena power that these various chairs of all these committees are going to have going after all sorts of information, including nancy pelosi, the incoming speaker, she's saying they want to get his tax returns. >> that's right. they talked about the tax returns. they've just talked about his financial dealings more broadly, saudi arabia, everything this president has done is going to be up for scrutiny. they'll likely bring michael cohen in at some point and you can imagine what sort of testimony he might provide in public. there is all this talk about impeachment. it doesn't really seem like that's a reality because of where the senate is and because donald trump is still so strong with his base and still so strong with republican senators, but it's going to get worse. it's going to be kind of a drip, drip, drip, i think for months and months to come for this president. >> this week has been more like a torrent. >> my suspicion is it's only just beginning.
>> that's right. from an investigative standpoint as we see these investigations spiraling out in lots of different directions, that is expanding the pool of people who potentially have a reason to cooperate against the president and actually offer damaging information. so as investigators get more and more people to talk, they're going to know different pieces of the trump organization, what occurred in the trump campaign. that is all mounting legal jeopardy for the president. >> there's also suggestion that this federal criminal investigation into the president's inaugural committee is also looking into foreign money that may have come in one way or another in exchange for maybe a more positive u.s. policy towards various countries. >> i think you've hit the nail on the head. i don't think this is about democrats. i don't think this is about elections. i think this is about money and money that the family -- forget about democrats and republicans -- the family took maybe domestically, maybe overseas. why does the president not talk that much about papadopoulos. he doesn't talk about flynn. he's supportive of flynn. he doesn't talk much about rick
gates, the manafort deputy who flipped. he talks about one person, michael cohen. i don't think that's because cohen paid off women. i think that's because cohen knows about family money. the president's worried about money, not about politics i think. >> this inauguration thing is a very early stage but if i can just quote my mentor, michael kensly who always liked to say the scandal isn't what's illegal, the scandal is what's legal. why do you think all these companies were paying millions of dollars to the inaugural committee? because they really cared that there was a nice set there? no, they were paying for access. why do people give money to politicians? why do you have to pay extra to go to a small reception? this is what goes on in american politi politics. you can go too far but we have to remember how awful and seedy this system is even when this is legal. stick around. we're digging into new information we're getting on all the breaking stories with potentially huge implications for the president. plus, another piece of the russia puzzle emerging right now
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butina, pleading guilty earlier today. sara murray is all over the story for us, says she knowingly engaged in the conspiracy against the united states. >> reporter: that's right, wolf. she faces up to five years in prison but it could be much less depending on how much cooperation she is with the government. admitting she conspired to act as an illegal foreign agent as she pleaded guilty in d.c. federal court today. >> she was satisfied with her lawyers and made the decision voluntarily. >> reporter: wearing a green prison jumpsuit and a tattered undershirt, she spoke clearly with a russian accent as she entered her plea, admitted that she acted at the directions of a russia official identified as alexander torsion while attending an american university. as she cooperates with investigators, she's providing information about how her boyfriend, republican operative, paul eriksson, aided her
opportunities in the u.s. and telling investigators about her contacts with the russians. the plea agreement was more extensive than previously known. butina worked closely with eriksson on a plot called the diplomacy project. >> traveling from moscow, russia. >> reporter: according to a plea, she sought to build relationships with politically influential americans, including attending national rifle association meetings and organizing a russian delegation to attend the 2017 national prayer breakfast in d.c. according to the plea, she russian billionaire to attend a conferences and arrange other meetings. at one political event she asked donald trump about his views on russia. >> if you will be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics especially in relationships with my country? >> i believe i would get along very nicely with putin, okay? >> reporter: that same year she invited an nra delegation to
moscow to build closer ties and afterwards sent torsion a measure, we will put pressure on them quietly later. she attended the nra's 2015 meeting, meeting wisconsin governor scott at the 2016 nra meeting, butina and ericson tried to lay the groundwork for a meeting between donald trump and russian president vladimir putin. their efforts fell short. ericson's role in aiding butina has been a focus of the investigation but so far, he has not been charged with any crimes. now despite the russian government's claim that butina is being tortured while in custody, her lawyer told the court today that she is doing well, mentally. >> thank you very much, sara murray. just ahead, china detains a canadian businessman who boasts about his ties to kim jong-un after arranging dennis rodman's trip to north korea. we're following this intensifying diplomatic dispute.
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tonight, we have confirmation that a second canadian has been detained in china as beijing is apparently striking back at canada for arresting a top chinese technology executive. china claims businessman michael spavor as well as former diplomat michael kovrig are suspected of undermining china's national security. spavor gained notoriety for
helping to arrange visits to north korea by the former nba star dennis rodman. cnn's brian todd is digging into all this for us. brian, tell us more about spavor, his connection to dennis rodman, and to kim jong-un. >> reporter: wolf, tonight, michael spavor's caught up in a web of intrigue and diplomatic retaliation. he's got a history with dennis rodman and kim jong-un going back at least five years. and tonight, we've looked into whether that connection played into spavor's detention by chinese officials. on his facebook page, michael spavor proudly displays pictures of him and kim jong-un in a friendly embrace. and chatting with kim over drinks on a boat. there's also a shot of him standing with the north korean dictator, along with the former nba star who spavor helped get into north korea. dennis rodman. tonight, michael spavor, a canadian businessman based in china, is believed to be languishing in a chinese jail after having disappeared this week.
canadian officials tell cnn spavor was detained in china after being questioned at an airport there. the canadians say when they were on the phone with spavor during his interrogation, he sounded concerned about the line of questioning. >> i'm shocked he's in the situation that he is right now. i've known michael for many years now. i always knew him to be sort of like a quiet, kid-like guy. >> reporter: chris volo managed several of rodman's visits to north korea, including one where they celebrated kim's birthday. ♪ happy birthday to you >> reporter: he says michael spavor, who runs a company that helps facilitate trips to north korea helped them with three of rodman's visits there. >> mr. spavor was basically in charge of getting our visas and organizing hotels. he lives in china. he's a chinese resident. china is his home. the last thing he would ever want to do is do anything to endanger the security of his home. >> reporter: that's not what chinese officials are saying tonight. they say they're investigating both spavor and another canadian
in china, former diplomatic michael kovrig, who they're also believed to have detained this week >> translator: canadian citizens were suspected of having engaged in activities that endanger china's national security. >> reporter: but chinese officials won't be more specific than that. they say they're taking, quote, compulsory measures on spavor. >> i think the compulsory measures means detainment, probably placed into a chinese jail cell, basically kept isolated, wondering what their future is going to be. it is certainly possible there could be some roughing up. i doubt very, very much they are going to torture citizens of canada. >> reporter: tonight, analysts are concerned that these two canadians are pawns in a high stakes retaliation play. they were accosted by chinese officials just a few days after canadian officials arrested a top executive of a chinese telecommunications firm in
vancouver. u.s. officials accuse her of helping her company, huawei, dodge u.s. sanctions on iran. >> i think it's very clear that the chinese are livid about the detainment of ms. mung, both because of who she is, cfo of a major chinese company, the daughter of the founder of huawei but also in the belief that this is not about breaking iran sanctions but really the americans playing hardball in trade negotiations. >> reporter: since the north koreans have had a relationship with michael spavor, could they possibly lobby their allies, the chinese, for his release. analysts say that's not likely because the north koreans are still beholden to the chinese for helping them get around sanctions. we reached out to north korean officials at the u.n. to ask if they would lobby on michael spavor's behalf. they have not been responsive to us. wolf? >> brian todd, thanks very much. "erin burnett outfront" "erin burnett outfront" starts right now.
-- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com ♪ "outfront" next, breaking news, federal prosecutors now looking into the president's inaugural committee. as we are learning, trump himself was in the room talking with the "national enquirer" publisher about hush money payments. are the walls closing in? plus president trump claims he never reimbursed "the national enquirer" for allegedly paying off an alleged mistress, but that doesn't matter. and it could be where michael cohen is sent to prison, so what's life at the so-called castle behind bars? let's go "outfront." and good evening. i'm erin burnett. "outfront" tonight, the breaking news, criminal investigation, president donald trump's 2017 inaugural committee is now under criminal investigation by dpral