Week In Politics: CIA Nominee Gina Haspel, North Korea And Trump's Lawyer Michael Cohen
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And let's stay right here with Michael Cohen's complicated finances to kick off our regular politics check-in. This week we are joined by Karen Tumulty, columnist for The Washington Post. Welcome.
KAREN TUMULTY: Great to be here.
KELLY: And also Erick Erickson of the website The Resurgent. Hey there, Erick.
ERICK ERICKSON: Thanks very much for having me.
KELLY: Karen, I'm going to start with you. Your column on Cohen this week describes him as the Swiss army knife of political fixers, meaning, what?
TUMULTY: Well, he's a sort of an all-purpose guy that people seem to want around for whatever the situation. Michael Cohen, to the degree anybody knew who he was before Donald Trump was elected, it was primarily for his very awkward appearances on cable television. Since then, his name has popped up as the lawyer who made the spectacularly unsuccessful effort to silence a porn star who claims to - that she had an affair with Donald Trump.
KELLY: Stormy Daniels is definitely not keeping quiet.
TUMULTY: That's right. And - but what we have discovered this week is how many different businesses and how many different industries suddenly decided that Michael Cohen, a lawyer who has a taxi business on the side, was just - had invaluable advice for them. Novartis, the big drug company, said that they needed his advice on health care policy. AT&T hired him even though he does not have any telecom expertise that we know of. And a Korean aircraft company hired him because they said they wanted him to help out with their accounting systems. The fact...
KELLY: And he's not an accountant.
TUMULTY: None of these things. The fact is that what he has to offer and what he was selling himself to these companies as is somebody who understands Donald Trump. And the question is whether he was also selling access to Donald Trump or people around him.
KELLY: Erick, let me bring you in here. If he was - and we'll keep it as an if. But if someone were to be peddling access in exchange for money, that would hardly be a new phenomenon that came to Washington with the Trump administration.
ERICKSON: Right. It's K Street in Washington. And what's so interesting here is that he didn't actually move to Washington and yet did this. Now, this happens all over Washington, D.C. Senate and congressional staffers, particularly for leadership - they go off into the private sector as lobbyists and claim they can get access back. There are actually rules in place to keep former members of Congress from lobbying on certain issues for a number of time using their influence. This is what Washington has.
What makes this so interesting is twofold in my mind. One, this is a president who claimed he was going to drain the swamp, And this is the swamp. But two, it doesn't appear that Cohen really actually was able to exercise any influence. And as a side note to that, a lot of these companies - no one expected Donald Trump to win. I don't even think Donald Trump expected to win. And so these companies were caught flat-footed with no connections to the president who famously was refusing to hire any Republican at all who had criticized him. So they needed someone. And here comes Michael Cohen pledging to be able to give them access.
KELLY: Karen, if the thing that is raising eyebrows for a lot of people is all of these companies paying Cohen for expertise in areas in which he does not appear to actually have any expertise, is the key question then whether any of this is illegal or just unseemly?
TUMULTY: That is the question. And there are - again, we don't know the answers to this. We do not know precisely why the FBI raided his home, his hotel room and his office. Where he might have run afoul with laws and regulations might have been, for instance, if he was doing actual lobbying work and did not report himself as a lobbyist. A lot of these payments from these companies went into the same corporation that he created to handle the payments from Stormy Daniels, so...
KELLY: Essential Consulting (ph), yes.
TUMULTY: And what a perfect name, huh? And so there's a question of whether there might have been some - you know, some fraudulent statements made with regard to the finances of that company. The fact is, we just don't know what the FBI was looking for or what the U.S. attorney is looking for.
KELLY: Let me turn you both to foreign policy, where the president had a big week. He announced it's full steam ahead for this June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. And then on Tuesday, he pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal. Here is what he had to say on that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world's leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons.
KELLY: Erick Erickson, you wrote a piece this week headlined "President Trump's Foreign Policy Is Winning So Far." How so as you see it?
ERICKSON: Well, he has made good strides in North Korea and with the Iran deal. I agree with him walking away from the Iran deal, which I always thought was a bad agreement. That being said, we're still early in the administration. I do think it's worth noting that one of the reasons the president feels so emboldened to do these things like withdraw from the Iran deal or pressuring North Korea as he has over the last years is because so many people told him repeatedly not to do these things like withdraw from the Paris accord or move the embassy to Jerusalem or whatnot, that bad things would immediately happen. And nothing ever did.
So now he feels even more emboldened to do these things, which is one reason I think, for example, on tariffs he's also proceeding. And even I'm waving my hand, saying, no, no, no, no - bad for the economy. And - but he's not listening to anyone because the people who told him these things would blow up in his face rather quickly were proven wrong.
KELLY: Karen, what do you think? Foreign policy for President Trump - is it winning?
TUMULTY: I think that the president believes that the same strategy that has seen him make some progress with North Korea, this idea of maximum pressure, may be what works with Iran. The question here is that - what is he going to replace the Iran deal with? The fact is it did have some shortcomings, and one of them is that it didn't succeed in sort of its idealistic goal, which was to make Iran a better actor in the region. Also, you know, a lot of these restrictions were not permanent ones. But now that the president has pulled out the United States unilaterally from the deal to the, you know, great anguish of the Europeans - the Russians are still in the deal - that is the problem. Where's the leverage?
KELLY: Where's the leverage? Erick - quick last word to you. How does all this fit into the "America First" foreign policy that the president promised?
ERICKSON: He wants a very robust one. The conservatives who supported Donald Trump believed that Barack Obama treated the United States as just one of 200 equal nations, and they wanted it to be the preeminent nation charging the world without actually going in and nation building, I might add. And they see the president doing this - a very strong American foreign policy pressuring other countries.
KELLY: All right, that is Erick Erickson of The Resurgent. Thank you.
ERICKSON: Thank you.
KELLY: And Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post - and that wraps up our weekly political chat. Thanks to you both.
TUMULTY: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.