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Roundtable: Political Implications Of Hunter, Cohen And Manafort

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August 24, 2018 1:38 p.m.

Roundtable: Political Implications of Hunter, Cohen and Manafort


Morgan Cook, investigative reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune

Jade Hindmon, reporter, KPBS News

Michael Smolens, political columnist, San Diego Union-Tribune

Alison St John, north county reporter, KPBS News

Related Story: Roundtable: Political Implications Of Hunter, Cohen And Manafort


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

A triple witching hour for Republicans Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife are indicted and arraigned for personal use of campaign funds. He remains defiant blaming the DOJ is deep state for a political witch hunt and blaming his wife. Meanwhile a jury convicts President Trumps former campaign chairman on eight counts of bank fraud and tax evasion and trumps personal lawyer pleads guilty to campaign finance violations he says were directed by the president. Mark Sauer the PBS roundtable starts now.

Welcomed our discussion of the week's top stories on Marcs hour. And joining me at the PBS roundtable today reporter Morgan Cook of The San Diego Union Tribune columnist Michael solons of the Union Tribune reporter Jade Heineman of CBS News and PBS North County Reporter Alison St. John. Well Republicans from San Diego to Washington D.C. and beyond are reeling following Tuesday's triple whammy. President Trumps former campaign manager convicted on eight counts of fraud. His personal lawyer pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations implicating the president in a conspiracy to influence the election. And a San Diego Congressman one of the president's most devoted supporters and his wife were indicted here for years of paying personal expenses with campaign donations. Duncan Hunter arraigned yesterday with wife Margaret refuses to resign and vows to fight the charges accusing the Justice Department of a political witch hunt. It's been stripped of his committee assignments after GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan launched an ethics investigation into what he called deeply serious charges. And we're starting with Duncan Hunter right there. Morgan You've covered this with your colleagues at the U.N. for a long time. Give us the nuts and bolts of this indictment.

So this indictment has 60 counts in it and it names Hunter and his wife Margaret as defendants and they face charges including wire fraud bank fraud conspiracy falsification of records and prohibited use of campaign finance money.

OK. And it's very detail I mean it reads like a narrative it's pretty clearly laid out and fairly easy to follow. You know it covers a number of years now. Hunter says the questionable expenses were in the 60 to 65 thousand dollar range paid his campaign back pretty much that amount. But this indictment seems to be a whole bigger scope than that.

Right. The indictment covers 2009 in 2009 to the end of 2016 and it lays out about 200 instances of. Alleged wrongdoing. And so they get kind of specific and detailed.

Here's a couple of examples serves as a little ones and fairly big ones right.

Right. There are little ones like trips to Disneyland a trip to Disneyland where they went to the gift shop and bought Minnie Mouse Sears and stuff and then described it as food and beverages. And the FEC reports sort of. Hide it allegedly. And also you know then there were bigger ones like trip to Italy a family trip to Italy and then trying to get. A. Tour of a navy. Facility there to kind of give it a feel of official purpose. And so all of that went on for allegedly a pretty long time and they misused allegedly a quarter of a million dollars.

And over and over again the indictment says the Treasurer read raised red flags. QUESTION This question that and it didn't simply hold any water.

It did not appear to change things but it does seem that the Treasurer repeatedly said I think we have a problem here. This isn't really allowed us you know we need to try to rein it in because we can't you know it's not OK.

Now it also paints a picture of the hunters having serious financial troubles. I mean what was it 11 100 bounced cheques or overdrawn on account.

Eleven hundred over Drozd I think like thirty seven thousand dollars of overdraft fees and stuff. We had an idea that their financial situation was a little stressed because in that. Annual financial disclosures that all the members of Congress file their personal finances is never reported having more than a thousand dollars in the bank and some loans in his house and stuff so the way that he got this money to repay his campaign was with the loan a third loan you know using his home as equity I guess and then he had to sell his house to. Repay that loan. And so it sort of gave us an idea of financial stress. And for the record what does a U.S. congressman make.

One hundred seventy four thousand dollars a year. And his wife Margaret was on the payroll for some of this period as well right. Yes. And shoes. They were paying her three thousand dollars a month. It was campaign manager.

Yes no union tribune when did you get interested in this. What was the origin of the story for the paper in April of 2016. The Federal Election Commission sent a letter to Hunter's campaign that said hey we noticed that you have you know more than 60 charges here to steam games this.

Video game Web site and there are marked personal expenses that need to be reimbursed also this Christian unified school district's tuition fee reimbursed. So could you give us a little more information on so we took that letter and reported that news and had us we put the story up. The 5th April 5th 2016 and that's when the news broke. And then we've sort of followed. That more and more started coming to light. Right well we want to make sure that this was a one off right because we reported on the video games are like oh well that's you know that's a mistake but. Hopefully it was the only mistake you know and then we went back through and saw the other charges from our personnel in the room mistaken to be reimbursed some charges that were reimbursed. Then we started looking into those. And reporting as you went through more and more reporting as we went where and where and then my editor Rickey's said he sort of stepped back and looked at the bigger picture and he said Man what's with all that Jack in the box. What's with all the Albertsons and we sort of these patterns kind of emerged that were. Interesting to us because we didn't see them on any other people's candidates just these personal extracts.

One of the unusual things remarkable things you don't see so Jane I wanted to turn to you and started in on the reaction to this what has been Duncan Hunter's reaction to this investigation and now this indictment and arraignment.

Well now you know he still He's defiant. He denies and denies taking any accountability for these expenses and he said what did he say said there was nothing criminal about being poor is what he said. But of course it becomes criminal when you put your hand in the campaign cookie jar and that's what this indictment alleges you're saying.

Right. All right. We do have sound bite here from Duncan Hunter talking this week about the indictment last year that we're going to go into court.

So you think you'll be going to win a court and when my election and we'll see where we are. But have you talked your way and let the American people let the people decide here to what the government likes to do is take away the power from the people to have an election. So let's have an election. Look let's go to trial. But you could also do that and we'll see who wins.

All right Michael Nahai is also talked about this deep state within the Department of Justice out to get Republicans. You had a column on that today. How is that argument going to fly.

Well you know he's he's mirroring what Donald Trump has been saying. Duncan Hunter actually even more so than Trump I think has been injecting the term democratic Deep State which is pretty odd because the U.S. attorney in San Diego is a Republican. And all of this stuff was signed off by top Republicans. The Justice Department as I said in a column today said in Congress remember he's not going to be indicted without the attorney general signing off and I mean that's you know that's a big deal that goes to the top. And so various things along the way. Now you know he's mentioned that there's an instance gives him a talking point and there has not been a good explanation for it a couple of the prosecutors involved in this case went to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser and they wanted the office recused the San Diego office recused.

But you know like I said that he's trying to sort of paint this as part of this larger cabal to overturn the Republican controlled government. That's a tough sell you know especially when really his his biggest problem is and I think that Morgan touched on some of those people that have been close to him. If you go through the indictment I mean obviously a lot of well documented but a lot of the information comes from people in the know whether. I don't know if it's a campaign treasurer or a chief of staff his wife. We know she had been talking with prosecutors or investigators as well. So it's sort of the insiders that were providing a lot of this information.

It's a tough sell. But you know conspiracy theories really appeal to the base. Absolutely. So it's a very effective. Yeah I spoke with Okon Mayor Bill Wells.

Who ran against Duncan Hunter really sort of as a failsafe. You know when I was in our top two primary two people from the same party can go to the general election and that's sort of how he's selling himself. If we don't have another Republican and basically this happens we're in trouble. The Republicans didn't buy it. He really didn't get that kind of support. But I talked to him about that specifically and he said he got a lot of anger from people because they're saying you know Duncan Hunter is a victim of this conspiracy. So you know people are do believe it you know and it's not like there hasn't been political politically motivated prosecutions by the federal government in the past so you know you always have to kind of be wary about it before you just dismiss things out of hand but in this case it's hard to make that case.

But how dangerous is it to democracy for everyone to buy into this deep state conspiracy.

Well you know I think that this has been done at several levels. The big threat here concern is the president of the United States. I mean this is his own Justice Department. You know the U.S. legal system that basically he's accusing is fraudulent or rigged and so forth. And I think that has some long term issues because you know a lot of people believe this and you know I mean let's face it whatever you think about Donald Trump a lot of people believe what the president the United States has to say. So this is the big thing. To a lesser level with Duncan Hunter happen. Yeah yeah certainly guys because like I said Bill Wells firsthand got an earful.

Jane I wanted to turn back to this arraignment yesterday an extraordinary event downtown set the scene for us there what was like in the federal court. You have this couple being being arraigned together.

Sure. So both that Duncan Hunter and his wife Margaret they arrived separately. Duncan first and his wife Margaret several minutes after that she walked in with her attorneys. Duncan stood up to greet the attorneys and to greet his wife. And it was a very cold reception. She walked right past him. He just attempted to pat her on the back as she walked by and set several seats down. There was little eye contact between the two as well. The only time that they were actually standing together was when they were standing before the judge.

OK. And we saw the folks watching TV. There were protesters outside we heard a little lock them up chant heroes echoing of course the Trump rallies and his supporters. Hillary Clinton on the national scene. Michael what's been the reaction of Republican leaders to the indictment.

Well you mentioned Speaker Ryan who find this all very troubling and immediately move to strip him of his committee assignments. It was interesting because initially Duncan Hunter was going to fight that and bring it to the House Republican conference that I believe was just yesterday that he sent a letter saying you know he would step back from his committee. You know some find a troubling. Darrell Isaw on the other hand he he's accusing the prosecution of malfeasance because he's saying this is coming out too soon to the election and that's an interesting thing because as we remember. In 2016 there were similar concerns about then FBI Director James Comey did when he reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails just before just before the a lot closer than this.

And you know I don't know what goes on in a situation like this in a U.S. attorney's office but you know I have a feeling that there's this thing about Labor Day is the official the real stretch run of the campaign. And you know if you've got this information do you want to actually sit on it and if you go with Darrell Issa Aspec Well it's not fair to do before. So you you indict him right after the election and people saying You mean you were sitting on this all along you didn't let the voters know so if you do damned you can look at it both ways. But that's kind of the argument but just getting by. That's sort of been the local Republican reaction.

I mean just because of the indictments being announced is going to take months. So it's not like this is going to resolve until after the election is going to trial next week. So you know a SO who has in the past there have been rumors that he might throw his hat into the ring. It doesn't really matter if it if it all comes to pass after the election even if Hunter gets elected. And the indictment goes through and he has to resign. That would be a perfect situation for Darrell license to jump right in.

Well this is a good point to talk about. His opponent Democratic opponent in this race and we all got some some leases from from his opponent as we saw this week. We'll get to that question in a moment.

But I'm trying to set up a sound bite to hear from him but tell us you know who is running against Duncan Hunter and this is going to energize just a campaigner so far as has actually done very well considering that bill and as Mark kembar No the job long name. Palestinian Mexican American and a very interesting candidate who actually managed to defeat a military veteran who was running as a Democrat and one would have thought that perhaps they would have gotten the higher support in the election.

But he still has come out and he is managing to connect with the voters quite effectively although he's still running way behind Hanser in the polls.

So it's a long shot and we've seen any polls since all this happened or is that too soon going through this. So let could be interesting to see with maybe the next exit polls as well we do as I say have a sound bite let's hear from from the candidate that.

I'm running for everybody in this district not just the resisters or the Trump service but everybody and I know that nothing in life is given.

I did inherit a seat from my dad and I didn't sell my votes to the highest bidders in Washington. So I could live lavishly all the people in my district languish.

So my focus is to make sure not to take this for granted and me and my supporters are going to be campaigning as if we're not running against a corrupt indicted congressman.

All right and as you see he's going right at the meat and potatoes.

Although right after the indictment signed you were there he was actually quite gentlemanly in his comments about Hunter.

I think he was as he was very you know in short thankful for Duncan Hunter service to the country but said you know what. I think he's had a hard time and that perhaps this man never came back from war. He never came back from the battlefield or whatever so you know he's been very gracious in his comments very kind about it. But then still driving right.

Well let's get to this news release here. Let's just bring this up. His campaign New Jersey campaign cites several references in the indictment. Very clear if you read it that Hunter was also using campaign funds for mistresses on a Tahoe Ski Trip Virginia Beach trip. D.C. hotel rooms some other charges here. This has been referenced elsewhere too. And Hunter's own attorney his reference to this story notable story earlier in the year politico.

Yeah I mean it was interesting in the indictment that it was so specific as to sort of detail the relationship that Duncan had with each person. Each individual whether it was named by the way it's not their number their number individual one individual to ABC or 15.

So right.

So so all of these relationships they're either golfing buddies or there are relationships that both he and Margaret have when you get to individual 14 through about 18. Right. You guys know about this. Suddenly these are personal relationships with Duncan Hunter.

And what we see like right here on 12 in the indictment it says Hunter spent one thousand eight dollars 72 cents in campaign funds at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe resorts Bond casino for food drinks and three nights lodging during a personal ski trip with individual 14. Not to mention we can go on and it says on this day the Hunter family bank account had a negative balance and incurred six separate insufficient funds fees totaling one hundred ninety eight dollars. And also on this same day Duncan Hunter withdrew twenty dollars from his personal bank account leaving a balance of 15 dollars and two cents. These instances are all outlined in this indictment on a number of pages.

That's quite a mouthful in one paragraph for the indictment. I mean I understand that his attorney Greg Bhaga has really suggested to the Justice Department that these should not be investigated because having.

Extramarital affairs perhaps it's not illegal and has nothing to do with any kind of legal proceedings. What is your personal. As long as you are your personal friends. I think the issue is more than money. Where does the money come now.

Now here here back in 2006 he voted to define marriage as one man one woman.

And now if we look at this indictment there might have been at least three or four people in his marriage. How you're voting and things like not that bad.

I assume your also is coming from and where you come from. The reason why I will respectfully disagree with Greg Verga a very good Aega attorney and a former U.S. attorney by the way. I mean I think you have to point out who the money was spent on. Because if Duncan Hunter is claiming this is a campaign expense. OK. What did this person have to do anything with campaigning and so you know I understand that Devega is trying to say oh they're trying to just you know throw a lot out there but I kind of get the legal strategy or reasoning that they point out that Mr. Gray misunderstood in the paper.

Morgan has a lot of information on the financial aspects but you haven't brought up very much about these rather more salacious details which could do him a lot more harm in the in the election. MORGAN. One of the things that I that I don't understand haven't been able to understand is that.

You know this these trips with these individuals who you know could be women I guess you don't understand how that is really with what he's been saying about how he didn't know about any of those these charges he didn't make any of these charges. He's suggesting that his wife. Paid for. Them. Right. Because it is yeah it doesn't it doesn't add I don't understand a lot of questions there.

This is not the first local congressman to get some hot water.

And yes it is interesting it's almost like the fifth district is jinxed isn't it. Because we had Randy Duke Cunningham back in 2005 who ended up resigning after he was found guilty of tax evasion tax fraud and bribery essentially two and a half million dollars. So actually larger numbers than here and the similarities are sort of spookily evocative of they because he's also a decorated military vet who was very popular because of his service. Top Gun pilot he also at the beginning you know completely denied all this and said I will have my day in court. And really I get the feeling that he really personally believed that he hadn't done anything wrong which you sometimes wonder what is going on in Washington where things where all this evidence you produce and there's still this reaction of like I did nothing wrong. So he ended up resigning. And you know this may be what happened.

One dad. And I agree with everything you said but there is a big distinction. I think in their wrongdoing that Duncan Duke Cunningham then alleged wrongdoings at Duke was convicted basically of selling government contracts for bribes. And you know to a degree he was selling out the United States. I'm not saying that in any way that what Duncan Hunter is being accused of. But I think in the public mind misusing campaign funds is a little different. There's a private donors and stuff like that. It's not quite as heinous in some people's minds as like I said the bribery and really pocketing money for you know selling out the government.

All right I did want to get down to the other Republican woes at the national level of course this is a federal office as well. Donald Trump this week saw his former campaign chair guilty and a jury trial he saw his former his personal lawyer plead guilty and implicate him in malfeasance. Let's start with the bite here. This is Donald Trump talking about Paul Manafort and Mr. Cohen This week one after the other let's hear them.

I have great respect for what he's done in terms of what he's gone through. You know he worked for Ronald Reagan for years he worked for Bob Dole. And I would say what he did some of the charges they threw against him. Every consultant every lobbyist in Washington probably does.

You know they make up stories. People make up stories this whole thing about flipping they call it. I know all about flipping for 30 40 years I've been watching flippers everything's wonderful and then they get ten years in jail and they they flip on whoever the next Tyas one is or as high as you can go it almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair.

Flippers as we saw in the man before trial with with Mr. Gates and he turned evidence for the government. They got to be corroborated. There's got to be other evidence and simply Michael calling.

And I think it was very and I mean it's interesting listening to the president of the New York Times did the story about how he's really sort of adopted mob lingo quite literally. You know he's talked about people flipping and rats. You know I mean it's just.

I guess you expect anything these days. It still seems a little jarring coming from the president but you know he's he said nice things about Manafort. He has not said nice things about Cohen who has pled guilty. So he you know and he implicated the president apparently you know where this is all going who knows. But it's all going in a bad direction at least. You know Jeff Sessions finally came out in front of the attorney general confronted the president saying you know he's not going to let the Department of Justice be used you know in a political way and so forth. Getting back to what Ed was referring to. Yeah and I think that you know that I don't know if people are finally starting to distance themselves from the president there was this notion of all these people being loyal. Well that's not happening anymore. Are the walls collapsing around them. I never I always caution to undersell Donald Trump is a mistake. He's a very smart guy. But this has been just a really strange week.

Well what about GOP leaders in Congress what have we heard them say regarding that.

Well you know I think the Senate wished they had left town like the House did because they're the ones all talking and they're not happy about things like you know somebody pleading a people voting. You know I just saw some clips of saying that you know these are crimes and this is a bad thing but anything beyond that is speculation and there's sort of that aspect and some people have gone as far to say you know there's nothing about Trump here so there's still kind of you know defending Trump some are to a degree in Ellson I want to bring this back of course as we talked about Duncan Hunter Chris Collins another staunch supporter of the president upstate New York another Republican in trouble and indicted.

Let's bring this back to the 49ers which was Darrell ice seat. He stepped down. You have an open seat there a Republican and a Democrat. Do you think this was for the Republicans overall might affect turnout there Republican just sitting this one out of the party.

Well I mean you've got to ask about the Democrats resources because they've been pouring resources into the 49 because being the best bet to flip the seat. And now they have a situation where really they have another opportunity. So it is kind of possibly going to pull some resources from the 49ers from the national level at least into the 15th. I spoke to the forty ninth campaign a local campaign today and they're very gung ho. They say they want to help the fiftieth to do the same thing they've done to the 49. Now it's really worthwhile for Democrats to get in there and see if they can use this opportunity to flip two seats. But it does raise questions as to divide.

Yeah and I mean even further in California there's a handful of seats in 0 7 or so that they're looking at. And frankly the 50 district Hunter district was not originally one of them that was such a safe Republican seat even when he was under investigation. But now the indictments. So they have to make some choices and they'll have to see some polling comes up. Do they think Compean Nihar can and can win because they actually think that they have some better shots in other seats. And the whole goal is to win the majority in Congress or the Democrats.

Now does this only a short time left here but does this become really a national story. It's been a national story that the race with Hunter this week and right on out to the rest of the campaign a big focus on us on the compound in Ohio.

I think so but in the context of the races I mean it's not going to just be focus on this because there is this chessboard and the Forty ninth is still the way it has been in the news down here as the bigger race to watch.

All right. We'll be talking about a lot in the weeks to come as we go and the elections sooner than you think. That does wrap up another week of stories at the PBS roundtable. I'd like to thank my guests Morgan of the San Diego Union Tribune Michael Small islands of the Union Tribune Jake Hyneman of PBS News and Alison St. John. Also with PBS. Reminder all the stories we discuss today Velvel on our Web site PBS dot org. I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today on the roundtable.