TRANSCRIPT: Michael Cohen attorney Lanny Davis' interview on ABC News' 'The Investigation' podcast

Transcript of Lanny Davis' interview as it appears in episode 2 of the podcast.

ByABC News
February 19, 2019, 3:31 AM

Michael Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, sat down for a wide-ranging interview for the second episode of "The Investigation," a new ABC News podcast focused on the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. A transcript of the interview as it appears in episode 2 of the podcast follows here:

ABC NEWS' KYRA PHILLIPS: Welcome to the second episode of "The Investigation." I'm Kyra Phillips, and thank you for being here with us once again. We are gonna continue to take you behind the scenes with our ABC News task force as we continue to uncover and dive into all the details of the Mueller investigation. Of course here with me once again, we're partners in crime, head of the task force, Chris Vlasto.

ABC NEWS' CHRIS VLASTO: Hey, Kyra. It was a great first show we had last week with John Dowd, who kind of told all. And we got a lot of headlines all over the country. And we're gonna have Democrats. We're gonna have Republicans. Which kind of leads us though to our second guest, who, you know, both of us have known for a long time. And when I knew him he was the-- the Clinton-- hatchet man who now is-- (LAUGH) is-- is-- is working for Michael Cohen.

PHILLIPS: Former White House special counsel and, as you mentioned, legal adviser to Michael Cohen. He's the founder the strategic communications firm, Trident DMD: Lanny Davis.

LANNY DAVIS: I only can say to Chris Vlasto that if I was a hatchet man, I never used a hatchet against him.

PHILLIPS: Didn't you save his job?

DAVIS: I was tempted, though.

PHILLIPS: That's-- that's a story I heard is that--

DAVIS: Well--

PHILLIPS: --you saved his job.

DAVIS: --I would-- I would--

PHILLIPS: Is that true?

DAVIS: --say I came to his defense when he deserved to be defended. And--

VLASTO: He did. And, you know, though-- though, Lanny, I did say in the other show I-- I said the difference of, you know, covering 20 years ago when we c-- during the Clinton administration and now even though the story is on steroids I think. I think the Trump story is significantly bigger. I thought-- I thought Clinton was a big story-- big story of my lifetime. This is, I think, even a bigger story. But the difference was Clinton had people do his work, people like you. President Clinton didn't do it himself. Donald Trump does it himself, and that kind of makes this a big difference. Don't you agree? Or--

DAVIS: Well, they say a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. You could say that about a president. And a lot of his mistakes using his Twitter account and lots of other things he does-- reflects what I think is basically a poor judgment history that Michael Cohen has told me after 10 years of working for him it would be kind to say that he has poor judgment. He has no judgment. In the years that Michael worked for him, it's quite amazing some of his personal experiences that he's described to me.

PHILLIPS: I'm just curious. You went right to Michael Cohen. OK, you-- you're, like, King Liberal, Mr. Democrat, and you're representing Michael Cohen. Explain to me why.

DAVIS: Well, first of all, I could use the usual reason that attorneys represent people that aren't always good people. That is what we do as a profession, but that isn't the reason I decided to work for Michael Cohen. It took a while for him to persuade me that he had made a genuine turn in his life after 10 years of shoveling you know what behind Donald Trump in an amoral if not immoral environment with a man without a moral compass. I did not want to represent someone who had defended him all these years on all of those dirty deeds. But that expression, dirty deeds, is the expression that Michael used with me when he said, "I am now frightened for my family and my country. It's one thing to do this over a 10 year time period that I'm ashamed of because he was in the private sector. But now he's president and he scares me. Would you help me get the truth out?" And it took me a while to be convinced that he was sincere. And once I was convinced, I realized I was not just doing it to help a client, Michael Cohen.

PHILLIPS: It's hard for me to imagine Michael Cohen being frightened. I-- I mean I'll be really blunt here: I've known him for a really long time. He's a hard ass, and he's mean, and he's tough. And he--

VLASTO: Frightened me.


VLASTO: He-- he threatened me more than you would threaten me.

DAVIS: I don't blame anyone for being skeptical, because I've had many reporters with bad experiences when Michael Cohen was yelling at them on behalf of Donald Trump-- I had bad experiences seeing Michael Cohen on television on feeling that way.

PHILLIPS: He's yelled at me. He's yelled at--


PHILLIPS: --Chris Vlasto.

DAVIS: I am convinced-- and it took me several weeks of many, many, many hours of conversations to be convinced that he is a man transformed. He's a different Michael Cohen than you remember. He's got the burden of proof to prove that.

PHILLIPS: When you say "he fears the president," I mean is he afraid the president's gonna have him, you know, taken out or something? I mean you make--

DAVIS: Well, that's--

PHILLIPS: --sound like this is some sort of--

DAVIS: Well--

PHILLIPS: --fatal threat.

DAVIS: Well, first of all, there is something that I'm about to say about his tweets in-- in attacking Michael Cohen. So let's get to that, and then I'll tell you about my word, "fear." Because I fear Donald Trump because he has a finger this close to the button. And he has sold us out. As far as I'm concerned, Helsinki is just positive proof that he sold us out to Putin and the Russians. He's compromised us with our allies. His judgment is so poor that I don't know what he's going to do when he goes to North Korea. He is literally a man without judgment, and he's president of the United States. He scares the you-know-what out of me. And so does he scare Michael Cohen. But beyond that, here's the president of the United States, the top official in law enforcement and everything else in the United States, using Twitter to call a person who is cooperating with prosecutors a rat. The word "rat" has a meaning in prison. And it--

PHILLIPS: What does it mean?

DAVIS: It means snitch. It means--

PHILLIPS: Which means?

DAVIS: --your life is in danger. It means that the president of the United States on Twitter calls somebody going to prison for cooperating with the government a rat. That is so reckless and so dangerous. That in and of itself is an abuse of power that could lead to his ouster. Much less having Giuliani, his lawyer, call out his father-in-law and his wife and says that his father-in-law might be connected on national television to organized crime.

PHILLIPS: Michael Cohen and President Trump have rolled in the same circles, Lanny.

DAVIS: So, I absolutely saw Michael Cohen that way for many, many years. And it was quite negative. And got dirty and shoveled you know what behind Trump all the time until, I believe, and now I believe him, that he underwent a transformation and decided to tell the truth. And when the issue of a pardon came up, he has asked me-- and I'll repeat here-- he wouldn't take a pardon if Trump pleaded with him to take it. Why? Because it would be dirty. Why? Because the man giving the pardon is dirty. So I believe there's a transformation. When he stood up and pled guilty, he said to the court, "I did dirty deeds. I'm ashamed of myself. I wanna make up for it by telling the truth, and I'm going to prison."

VLASTO: Do-- do you think the-- the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York were too harsh on Michael Cohen?

DAVIS: So look, I'm a good enough lawyer with a client that I'm not criticizing even a little bit the prosecutors in New York. Michael is now cooperating the best he can to persuade them-- that he's not as bad as they thought he was. But I can say this with-- respect for the prosecutors. Number one: Give-- I'll give you one fact of a crime that he pled to and that he's serving time on. He took out a loan as part of the hush money that Donald Trump directed him to pay. That's in-- on the public record that the prosecutors put into the sentencing memo. Donald Trump directed him to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels so the story wouldn't come out right after the "Access Hollywood" right before the election because he feared the political consequences. That's called a crime. And when he did that he used his own home equity line for $500,000 as money to pay Stormy Daniels. Why didn't he use Trump money or Trump organization money? Because they were covering it up. They didn't want it traceable. So he borrowed out of his own equity line. Yet he was charged with making a false statement-- we're not disputing that-- somewhere on the financial application. Yet that has been charged as a crime. And the fact that it's a whole--

VLASTO: And that's a crime that-- a crime that a lot of people--

DAVIS: Well, let's just say that it--

VLASTO: It's not a pros-- normally, people aren't prosecuted for that.

DAVIS: For goodness sakes, the bank is the last one that would complain if they're covered 10 to one. But the jud-- the judgment by the prosecutors, which we do not question, was that it was a crime to have a false statement elsewhere on the financial application. And-- the time that he is serving, he is serving. And he has cooperated. And he has told the prosecutors, "I'll try to give you more information."

PHILLIPS: Why would he do that for Donald Trump?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, when he finally pled guilty, he wasn't for Donald Trump. That's after he decided to tell the truth about Trump. Why did he spend 10 years as the shovel brigade doing all these-- what he describes as--

PHILLIPS: Why would he take out--

DAVIS: --dirty--

PHILLIPS: --a home equity loan? Why would-- why--

DAVIS: This-- he did it for Donald Trump because he was doing what he did for Donald Trump all through the years. He was-- the-- the-- the shov-- you've seen a circus and you see what people behind the elephants do.


DAVIS: That's what he was--

PHILLIPS: But why would--

DAVIS: Doing for Donald Trump.

PHILLIPS: He do that? Why would he do that--

DAVIS: Because--

PHILLIPS: --for Donald Trump?

DAVIS: --Trump asked him to.

PHILLIPS: It was like--

DAVIS: Trump asked him not only to break the law but to cover it up by coming from his own personal money and then get repaid by the company as if it was a legal-- fee, which he-- what-- which it wasn't, which everybody knew it wasn't. He did it because in those days before he's what I regard to be a transformed-- Michael Cohen. Whatever Mr. Trump wanted, "I'm here to clean up after him."


VLASTO: Lanny, do you think a Mueller report's gonna come out maybe in a couple weeks or few weeks. And campaign finance-- this campaign finance violation is not gonna be part of the Mueller report. But do you think it's an impeachable offense?

DAVIS: No doubt. It's a felony.

VLASTO: But do you-- are-- not all felonies are impeachable, right?

DAVIS: I don't know what felony isn't-- impeachable. But if you're corrupting an American election, which is what hush money right before the election is, that you're hushing up something that could affect the election. Seventy thousand votes in three states out of 15 million elected Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton who, I have to add, won by more than three million popular votes. Were those 70,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin have been changed? Out of 15 million. Do-- do the math. If they had known about the Stormy Daniels hush money payment.

VLASTO: Right.

PHILLIPS: Does Michael Cohen have anything that could lead to criminal charges?

DAVIS: Does he have anything on Mr. Trump?

PHILLIPS: Yes, that could lead to criminal charges.

DAVIS: So, I can't answer that question except to say, evasively, (LAUGH) that he went to-- work with and cooperate with Mr. Mueller for 70 days and 70 hours. And Mr. Mueller's words were, "He gave us evidence that go to the core issues of our investigation."


DAVIS: Certainly, his evidence on Mr. Trump directing him to pay hush money was evidence of a felony that Mr. Trump is guilty of.

VLASTO: How much do-- don't we know what Michael Cohen said? We know kind of what Michael Cohen has said in the public record, but how much don't we know?

DAVIS: Well, we don't know a lot.


DAVIS: If it's 70 hours and seven days with Mr. Mueller, we know nothing about that other than what Mr. Mueller said, which is that it was relevant, important, or significant, and it went to the core issues of the Mueller investigation. That's what we know.

PHILLIPS: So, does he have anything that could bring down this president?

DAVIS: I just can't answer that or even guess. I know that if he ever has a chance to testify publicly, he won't be-- able to address any of the issues that Mr. Mueller is investigating. And a lot of people will be disappointed by that. But what he will talk about is exactly what we were talking about earlier is what did you do for Mr. Trump during those 10 years and why? And what caused you to change, and tell the truth, and refuse to accept a pardon, and become transformed? He needs to tell his personal story to the American people. And when he does, what we all think we know about Donald Trump and all of the negative reactions that many of us have to Donald Trump-- you're going to hear impersonal, frontline experiences of memories, and incidents, and conduct, and comments that Donald Trump said over that 10-year time period behind closed doors that, to me when I first heard Michael tell me all this, even as much as I knew about Trump that was negative, was chilling.

VLASTO: Do you think the Trump people have played this smartly in the sense of that there's a feeling that we already know what's gonna come? As a strategic-- there's a lot of people-- like, [ABC News'] Jon Karl has reported on the air that he thinks this Mueller report may be anticlimactic. And he's saying that only because we know a lot and we're now accepting things as par for the course of this Presidency. Do you-- do you know what I'm saying, Lanny?

DAVIS: Well-- I think there is a preemptive strategy that, at times, I've seen Giuliani try and he, as usual, messed it up-- by getting bad news out himself in order to numb everyone. And I've seen a little of that come out of the-- Trump White House. I think the media nowadays kind of sets up the bar that's impossible to meet. And if there isn't a smoking gun that means Trump wins. Or it-- I-- they are high fiving at the White House because his popularity went up to 44 percent from 37 percent, the bump that happens after an inauguration and the government shutdown. If I ever had the experience in the Clinton White House of high fiving that we were at 40 percent. This man has 60 percent of the country who is as afraid of him and considers him as reckless as I do. So whatever happens in the report, I'm sure the Trump White House and I think the media will do the same thing. "Oh, well. It wasn't a smoking gun. And it's a victory."

VLASTO: John Dowd said on our premier podcast that he believes that it won't be made public. That according to the laws, the guidelines, it-- he'll just give it to Bill Barr and that's it.

DAVIS: Well, first of all, I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Dowd. He probably-- is a great loss that he was the one sound voice of advice to Mr. Trump that is no longer there. It sounds like wishful thinking to me. This is all about politics. This man can't get above the low 40s in job approval rating with one of the greatest economies we've had in years. But they're high fiving when he gets to 43 percent. (LAUGH) So I am saying Mr. Dowd is engaging in wishful thinking. If the only standard is a felony and you can't prosecute a president, we would prosecute this president for what he did on paying hush money, corrupting an American election. And he doesn't even defend that? Mr. Dowd is right. But I think that the American people are wiser than a narrow view by an excellent lawyer like Mr. Dowd.

PHILLIPS: Nancy Pelosi tweeted that she believes Putin has something on-- on Trump. Do you agree?

DAVIS: I-- infer it, which means that I agree from a reasonable inference. I can't prove it. But yes, there's no other explanation to me why he took the notes of a translator. Never in American history has that ever happened.

VLASTO: Well-- well, wait. Let me play the other side. He had been burnt-- the-- his first calls as president by someone leaked out his conversations with the Australian president and the prime minister. You got-- he could be a bit paranoid.


VLASTO: You know? I mean--

DAVIS: He-- he-- there could be men on the moon. I-- I-- I-- there could be Martians under my bed. The fact is (LAUGH) his conduct with Putin, secretive, taking phone calls, not-- enforcing sanctions, having his campaign officials constantly meeting with Russia, and then lying about not talking about Russia, butlet me put it this way: Mr. Trump has never had a policy of telling the truth to the American people. And what he's done with Mr. Putin, and all of the contacts, and all of the lies-- you have to ask yourself, why? But-- there is one other point to be made about the standard of this-- Mueller report. I go back to King Henry II. King Henry II was very angry with the Archbishop of Canterbury. But he was too smart to tell his knights, "Go kill the Archbishop of Canterbury." So what he said was, "Would no one rid me of this grievous priest?" And about 10 minutes later, the Archbishop of Canterbury was dead. If you were on a jury, would you convict King Henry II of being part of a conspiracy to murder? Mr. Trump never ordered or never did anyone. "I didn't collude. I didn't collude. I didn't collude." He just gave out plenty of signals to his people to, "Let's lighten up on the campaign plank. Let's not enforce sanctions. Let's promise we won't." Why did Mr. Flynn plead guilty? Why did he lie? Why did everybody lie? Mr. Trump is smart enough to say, "Will no one rid me of that grievous priest?"

VLASTO: I never thought this show was gonna get so intellectual (LAUGH) so quickly.

PHILLIPS: I may be going back into my--

VLASTO: It's that Yale education of yours--


VLASTO: --Lanny.

DAVIS: There's another-- there's an easier way to explain why Mr. Trump can be inferred as being compromised by the Russians. You don't have direct evidence of it, but as-- I think Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein agree, circumstantial evidence is the following: you go to bed at night and there's no snow on the ground. You wake up in the morning and there's snow on the ground. Would a jury convict that it snowed? You didn't see it snow. This is the way Donald Trump has operated, as Michael Cohen will explain, through the years. He uses code words. He winks and he nods, and people do what he wants. He doesn't say, "Go kill the Archbishop of Ant-- of Canterbury." He says, "Will no one rid me of this grievous priest?" And that's why Mr. Dowd's standard of direct or, as I heard recently, "There's no direct evidence of collusion." No, there's no direct evidence that-- he even knew the word collusion I doubt-- that Donald Trump used the word collusion. But did everybody act, talk, and walk with more Russians meeting, talking, involved with, including in the Oval Office, where Mr. Trump denounced James Comey and said he was a wacko to the top spy of Russia in the United States? There's just so much Russian involvement. Is that all a coincidence? I think that there's an inference to be drawn that Mr. Trump, including they got hide what he actually says to Putin--

VLASTO: But do you think the Democrat--

DAVIS: --that there's an inference that he's compromised.

VLASTO: Do you think all the congressional-- you-- you and I did a lot of congressional investigations. It bogs down a presidency. The American people worked to Bill Clinton's favor 20 years ago in-- investig-- over-investigating--

PHILLIPS: Overreach. So you're looking at overreach.

VLASTO: You know, that this could blow up in the Democrat's fa-- Democrats' face.

PHILLIPS: Danger of overreach on behalf of the Dems.

DAVIS: The fact is you're right. (LAUGH) We could overreach. And we have a tendency, just like the Republicans, to follow the most extreme voices in our base. And there is a danger that we will do that. The-- the insurance policy that that won't hurt us and we will still prevail in 2020 is we're running against somebody who is mentally unbalanced and the American people fear. And I'm not using those words lightly. I believe 55 percent to 60 percent of the American people will never vote for Donald Trump under any circumstances. I believe the issue in 2020-- which Michael Cohen can speak to better than anyone-- is the man lacks character. He speaks in bigoted words in private, which Michael Cohen will tell you. He treats people badly. He has no moral character in defrauding people in his businesses, and going bankrupt, and taking cash out, and putting people out of work. He lacks the moral compass that we expect in our presidents. That is a lot more powerful-- that will occur at the polls-- than an impeachment proceeding or in congressional investigations.

VLASTO: I do to-- while you're here, the-- Michael Cohen told many a reporter-- talking to him about Donald Trump-- even about the Stormy Daniels stuff. He'd swear on his children that it wasn't true. So why should we believe him now? I mean I know you said but before, but he's sworn up and down. "You gotta trust me. Trust me. I didn't-- I did this on my own."

DAVIS: Well, first of all--

VLASTO: You know?

DAVIS: --it's a fair question. This is a moment of history. Let's write down the date and the time. I've said to Chris Vlasto that he asked me a fair question. This is, like, (LAUGH) an historic moment.

VLASTO: Thank you, Lanny.

DAVIS: No, I-- I'm a great fan of Chris. It is a fair question, Chris. And as I said to Michael Cohen, it took me a while to be persuaded. You have a heavy burden of proof. People are going to start out saying, "After all you did. You've admitted to lying. You're going to prison for admitting to lying to Congress. Why should we believe you?" And I'm good enough in the business that I'm in, which is to try to get facts out and try to restore people's reputations, that Michael know he starts from a deep hole. And the hole is the hole of what he did for Trump for 10 years. There are a couple of things that he'll say that he heard Donald Trump say behind closed doors about black people - that people, even his supporters, will say, "Yeah, that's Trump."

VLASTO: So in a few weeks Michael Cohen is going to go to jail. What's his head right now? Where-- where--

DAVIS: Well, thanks for asking. He's-- he's-- his family. He has a great wife, two great children. And if his name-- were not associated with Donald Trump, I do not believe he would've been the subject of this massive raid. And I don't believe that he'd be-- at least doing the time that he's doing. But-- his-- distress is great. We've set up-- a GoFundMe site. He hasn't worked for well over a year. He's certainly worried about a future ability to earn a livelihood. And his-- two kids, one out of college, one out of-- grad school, are-- and his wife are in great distress that their dad's going away for maybe as long as three years.

PHILLIPS: Is he ready for jail? Can he survive jail, Lanny?

DAVIS: He'll-- survive. He's a survivor. And he's-- not happy when the president of the United States launches-- attacks on his wife, on his father-in-law, and then calls him a rat, which is a label that in prison can be a dangerous label. So that-- is to be taken seriously. But I do think-- he-- he has-- been transformed. It's my opinion. Took me a while to come to that opinion. And I'm gonna leave it to everybody, including both of you, to decide after you've heard him-- when he speaks whether he should be believed.

VLASTO: Thank you very much, Lanny.

DAVIS: Thank you.

"The Investigation" is a podcast series offering an in-depth look at special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, analyzing the potential fallout and political consequences. Hosted by ABC News correspondent Kyra Phillips and the ABC News investigative team, led by Senior Executive Producer Chris Vlasto. "The Investigation" is available for free on Apple Podcasts (via iPhone), Google Podcasts (via Android), Spotify (via smartphone and desktop), Stitcher (via smartphone and desktop), TuneIn (via smartphone and desktop), the ABC News app (via your smartphone) or your favorite podcast player.

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