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Source: John Kelly knew of Abuse Claims for Months; Two Ex- Wives Accuse Porter of Abuse; Pelosi: Today: Senate and House Vote on Spending Bill. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 8, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

A key presidential adviser has resigned following accusations of domestic abuse from two former wives. Now this is what White House Chief of Staff John Kelly first said about these accusations yesterday.

"Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him."

Overnight, Kelly did amend that some, "I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter I have come to know."

So why was Kelly shocked when our sources say he knew about these allegations for months?

Abby Phillip at the White House with these growing questions. Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. This story continues to be disturbing and questions are swirling about what exactly John Kelly did know about Rob Porter and these accusations against him. Our sources are telling us that he was aware that these allegations existed for months, but apparently did nothing. The question is did he know the extent of it when the photos of these women -- his ex-wives were published in the "Daily Mail" became very clear that this was a big problem.

Now, meanwhile, we have learned that President Trump learned this week about the accusations against Porter and was upset about them. Was he kept in the dark by his own Chief of Staff? And another White House source tells us that some on the staff now feel misled by Rob Porter, that perhaps he didn't let everyone know exactly how severe these accusations were. Now, regardless, John, two women, both ex-wives of Rob Porter's, have alleged that he abused them during their marriages, pictures or no pictures, those accusations are in fact very serious.

Rob Porter, by the way, is someone who despite his title as being staff secretary is someone who is pretty important in this White House. He came to the White House from the United States Senate, where he was a senior aid to several lawmakers. He's a Harvard Law School Graduate, a Rhodes Scholar and he's also someone who was a gatekeeper to President Trump. He was responsible for virtually every piece of paper that went across President Trump's desk. And was a top deputy of John Kelly's. We have learned that despite saying that he might be leaving in the coming weeks, Rob Porter might be gone as early as today as this controversy continues to swirl around the White House, John.

BERMAN: Interesting though that as far as we know he's not gone just yet. Abby Phillip at the White House. Thanks so very much.

Rob Porter's ex-wives, they are speaking out. This is his second wife, Jennifer Willoughby.


JENNIE WILLOUGHBY, ROB PORTER'S EX-WIFE: Rob wasn't finished fighting, I suppose, at that point, he was still angry and so he came and grabbed me by the shoulders here, and pulled me out of the shower in a rage. And immediately on seeing the terror in my face, retracted and apologized and changed composure immediately. But that was -- that was the first time that he had laid hands on me.


BERMAN: I want to get straight to CNN's MJ Lee. MJ, these women are telling very harrowing, very similar stories, by the way, the same stories they told the FBI more than a year ago.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: That's right, very disturbing allegations from both of Rob Porter's ex-wives. We spoke with them yesterday on the phone. I just want to walk you through some of the allegations that they're making about their ex-husband.

The first ex-wife Colbie Holderness married Porter in 2003 and she said that she suffered constant emotional and verbal abuse from Porter and that things actually did get physical immediately after the wedding, that during their honeymoon he kicked her in the thigh during a fight. And that over the years that he consistently would choke her and then throw her on the bed and put his body weight on her and leaning sort of his limb, elbow, knee, to sort of show his anger. And then, of course, the photos that you just showed, that was an incident that she says took place in 2005 where he actually punched her in the face, extremely disturbing.

The second ex-wife is Jennifer Willoughby. We just saw her speak obviously a few moments ago. She married Porter in 2009. She also described to me deep emotional abuse from Porter and she also said that things sometimes got physical, for example, in 2010, when he punched a glass pane in their front door and the police had to come. And she says the police actually recommended she take out a protective order against him, so she did that. And then later in the year is when she says that the shower incident happened, where they had a fight. She was in the shower afterwards and then he came in and grabbed her by the shoulders, making her feel very frightened. Now, John, an additional twist to the story is that both of the ex- wives tell me they were contacted last year, by a woman claiming to be Porter's ex-girlfriend and that she told them that she was also abused by Porter and that she was essentially reaching out to them for help.

[10:05:11] This is one message that she wrote to one of the ex-wives. She said, I work in politics, and despite Rob's repeated abuse, some of which I think may be known about, he continues to rise and I'm afraid to go against him. I'm sorry to bother you. I wanted to reach out and hear your story if you're willing to share as well as how you broke out of it with him and mostly how you recovered. As Abby laid out, Porter, of course, has denied these allegations, calling the allegations a coordinated smear campaign.

BERMAN: And no full security clearance. He was not MJ Lee, terrific reporting, important reporting, so good to hear the stories of these women, the bravery of having them come out so publicly now is so interesting. MJ thanks so much.

There is also a serious security component to this. Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York. Congressman Maloney served as staff secretary to President Bill Clinton, which is the same position that Rob Porter is still serving until this morning. And now, the Congressman here is calling for the House Oversight Committee to open an investigation into the process that went through here. First, Congressman, let me ask you as someone that experienced inside this job in the White House, explain your proximity to the president.

REP. SEAN PATRICK MALONEY (D), NEW YORK: There is not a day that goes by that you don't have direct interactions with the president. You see them every day.

BERMAN: And no full security clearance. He was not granted a full security clearance. Our reporting is the FBI made clear he would never get that clearance. What kind of message should that send?

MALONEY: Look, this is the most serious part of this from a national security point of view. The allegations are disgusting and well corroborated, and my God, the rest of the country is trying to make progress in the Me Too movement. We have White House senior staff overlooking these kinds of things, but from a national security perspective, the staff secretary sees the country's greatest secrets. There is a stack of red envelopes -- folders, excuse me, on that desk, every day, and the staff secretary brings them to the president.

The staff secretary sees literally everything the president sees. And to have someone in that job for 14 months with no national security clearance is outrageous and John Kelly owns that. And has some very tough questions to answer. Not just about why he's still defending him, which is outrageous, but about why you would allow someone to be in this position who can be so easily blackmailed. It is crazy.

BERMAN: Apparently had some temporary clearance, Congressman. You want the Oversight Committee to look into this. Explain what you want them to do. MALONEY: Well, we have to understand how classified information was handled for the last 14 months. And what the heck is going on at the White House. Because bear in mind, the women, the victims in this case came forward in January of 2017 that would have stopped in its tracks -- the security review.

Look, the FBI went to South America, where I worked as a volunteer with the Jesuits, between college and law school, and they interviewed people in the village I worked in. This security review is the most thorough thing any White House staff is ever going to go through. And it would have been stopped in its tracks by a protective order, by police documents, by blackmail able allegations and by people who were coming forward saying this happened to me.

To ignore that and to allow this person to continue in that position seeing our country's greatest secrets is incredibly irresponsible and we are seeing now even today the Chief of Staff defend the wife beater, not the victims. But it is his own conduct, it is John Kelly who has tough questions to answer, about why he ignored this and let someone who could be so easily compromised do this job.

BERMAN: As you said, you know, the FBI ended this, we believe we have the answers there, the FBI was told this back in 2017. One of the former wives, in fact, said that she told the FBI she feared that Porter could be compromised because she believed that so many people knew about the alleged abuse.

MALONEY: Well, and the "Washington Post" is reporting this morning that even while doing the job, Mr. Porter is reaching out to try to suppress these accounts. As the women are continuing to talk about it, that is the profile of someone who can be blackmailed. That same person is reading code word, top secret national security information that goes to the president. That's a bad mix. And maybe it is understandable that the staffer tries to cover up their own wrongdoing and maybe he should get his day in court, but when you're the Chief of Staff, and you become aware of this, you put a stop to it. And you sideline the guy, and you keep top secret information out of the hands of somebody who is so easily blackmailed.

BERMAN: Congressman, if I can move on to the other big news facing Congress today, which is this spending bill that will be first voted on in the Senate, which increases the deficit quite a bit, some $500 billion, but it doesn't address specifically the issue of immigration. And I know there are a great many House Democrats like yourself who would like to see that. What is your opinion of this Senate bipartisan deal?

[10:10:04] MALONEY: Can I tell you something? I have a big problem with this spending bill because it is drunken sailor level spending. And I'm in the going to go along with it just because the domestic spending is as high as the defense spending, which seems to be the bipartisan agreement here. We just put $1.5 trillion on the credit card in an outrageous tax cut, 83 percent of which goes to the richest Americans. We now have a huge debt problem in America, made much worse. And to put $500 billion in new spending that is not offset except for

a one shot on this strategic petroleum reserve is incredibly irresponsible. And that is on top of ignoring the Dreamers, which we should also deal with. So we should deal with our deficit, and the Dreamers and our other problems in a straightforward way. Count me out. This is bad for my neighbors in the Hudson Valley. It is not bipartisan. It is collusion between the parties who can only agree on spending money, we don't have, it is outrageous.

BERMAN: So, Congressman, one of the guys who struck this deal was the senior senator from the state of New York, Chuck Schumer. Are you calling Senator Schumer a drunken sailor?

MALONEY: We have a disagreement on this. And I do not believe that reaching agreement at the expanse of our fiscal stability is wise. And I think it is far past time in the wake of the tax cut bill, when we blew a $1.5 trillion new hole on top of the $10 trillion we're already going to take in debt over the next decade, when we blew that new hole into the debt and the deficit, we cannot throw $500 billion in unpaid forced spending on top of that.

I say that as a Democrat. And I say that as someone who also thinks we should deal with the Dreamers issue now. And not keep kicking it down the road. So I'm a no. And other Democrats will make their own decision. I have great respect for Senator Schumer. He's in a tough job and he's got a commitment on the Senate side to get a vote, which is a lot more than Paul Ryan has done in the House. So I don't have anything but respect for Senator Schumer. But I'm going a different direction on this.

BERMAN: Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

MALONEY: Thank you.

BERMAN: Nancy Pelosi just said about the spending deal next. And Vice President Pence, talking tough on North Korea as South Korea plans to meet with Kim Jong-un's sister for lunch. The U.S. and South Korea, are they on the same page here? Stick around.


[10:16:23] BERMAN: All right. We're just a short time away from what could be a near Washington miracle, the Senate will vote on a two-year bipartisan spending bill, will vote on it. The big question now is will it pass? This is what the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said really just moments ago.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: I have an unease with it and hope the speaker will man up and decide that we in the House can also have what is Mitch McConnell guarantees in the Senate, a vote, a vote on the floor. I'm pleased with the product. I'm not pleased with the process.

QUESTION: You won't vote for it?

PELOSI: No, I won't.


BERMAN: So Nancy Pelosi is a no vote. I had a Democratic Congressman moments ago, tell me he's a no vote on Republican senator about 20 minutes ago, tell me he's not earlier he's a no vote.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill. We're getting these very public noes, Sunlen. But you still get a sense there is confidence it will pass.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, John. As certainly Nancy Pelosi making her views of this bill yesterday, known when she held that eight-hour speech on the House floor. She is against it. But that said things are on track to get this wrapped up today to avoid a shutdown at midnight tonight. But certainly there are many steps that this has to go through up here on Capitol Hill today to make that officially happen. The Senate will be convening in the next half hour, 10:30 Eastern Time. At some point in the early afternoon they will hold a vote on that bipartisan massive two-year budget bill that they were able to negotiate. That will pass through the Senate. That gets kicked over to the House side.

Now, there it certainly does face a much steeper climb. In the last 24 hours, we have been hearing really from two groups unhappy with this bill as Nancy Pelosi said. There are many House Democrats that are unhappy that this bill does not include a DACA fix, unhappy and wants more assurances from the House Speaker that he will hold a vote and a debate over immigration on that House floor. And then you also have the flip side. Many deficit hawks, House conservatives who are unhappy about these substantial ads that this bill potentially has on the deficit, all that said, the House Speaker notably this morning really striking a confident tone. Here is what he said in the last hour on the "Hugh Hewitt Radio Show."


HUGH HEWITT, RADIO HOST, "HUE HEWITT RADIO SHOW": Do you have the votes in the House of Representatives to pass what looks look a done deal in the Senate?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SEPAKER: I think we will. I feel good. A part of it depends on the Democrats. This is a bipartisan bill. It's going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support. I feel very good about Republicans.


SERFATY: And that really backs up what aides up here on Capitol Hill have been telling us, John, that despite all these public, as you said, no votes, there is a good contingent of people from those unhappy House Democrats, unhappy House conservatives, that will ultimately end up voting for this deal. And that certainly is a remarkable and notable statement from the House Speaker this morning, going into potential votes tonight, before that midnight deadline that he's feeling like he's in a good spot. John?

BERMAN: All right, Sunlen Serfaty, we'll watch this closely all day and maybe even all night.

Joining me now, CNN political commentators Angela Rye and Alice Stewart, and CNN political analyst Jackie Kucinich. Angela, I'm going to start with you because we just heard from Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat in the House saying she's a no vote. Sean Patrick Maloney told me he's a no vote. Liberals particularly in the House right now, they are not happy about this.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. And I think we have to rely on what folks have said -- what folks have done more than what they have said. So this is -- there have been now five short-term spending bills that all were supposed to be considering DACA. None of that has happened. So now we're supposed to take -- we're supposed to rely on the words of the Senate that if you do this spending measure this two- year bill this two-year budget, we're going to consider immigration at a later time.

[10:20:10] We can't rely on those words. Five other times you haven't considered this bill, or these people, I don't know how we got to a place where we're not considering the people that the policies impact. That is the big issue. And Democrats have to hold that line. I think Nancy Pelosi did a good job of doing that on the House floor. But it has to go beyond the pomp and circumstance into what really matters and that's passing the legislation.

BERMAN: It's interesting. That's the line you're hearing from some Democrats, Alice, the line you're hearing from some Republicans, particularly the Freedom Caucus, I heard it from John Kennedy, senator from Louisiana a little while ago, is the spending here is out of control from the things they would like to see. This will drive up the deficit, pure and simple. Granted the tax cut they all just voted for, that will drive up the deficit as well. This will even more.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure, the Freedom Caucus is really strong on making sure that we don't pass a budget bill that adds to the deficit and they're going to stay firm on that. With regard to the Democrats on this, I don't understand why they're going it die on the DACA hill yet again. They should have learned last month that it didn't work for them. They need to separate their immigration policies from this budget bill.

Appropriations bills should be about appropriations and not policies. So I think what -- if we didn't learn anything else last month, let's focus on a big -- a nice budget deal that people can agree on and let's deal with immigration. We still have time. We still have until March to worry about DACA. I think we need to take one issue at a time and right now it is getting this budget passed before midnight.

BERMAN: And that seems to be the Chuck Schumer calculation right now. Jackie Kucinich, while this debate is going on, it will go on all day and into the night, there is this cloud of controversy over the White House that -- I really -- I got to say this one surprised me the way that General John Kelly, the Chief of Staff, has handled this. Rob Porter, the allegations of domestic abuse came out, credible allegations, these two women on the record, a picture of one of his former wives with a black eye. There's another telling a story to cameras about how she was dragged out of the shower. And up until late yesterday, John Kelly was apparently arguing that Rob Porter, the staff secretary, should keep his job. I mean John Kelly is in some hot water now.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is disturbing. Because initially there was -- they tried to say he didn't know about it when in fact it is very unlikely that John Kelly did not know about these allegations against an aide that was so close to him. He's putting loyalty over these allegations. And you know the fact that someone with this alleged history of violence.

As you said, they're very credible allegations, was able to get so far on this White House, even when these -- there is reporting that a third woman went to Counsel Don McGahn and also raised that this was an issue. So they had all of this evidence and chose to just promote him. And keep -- allowing him to rise in the White House. And it really -- again, there is no other word for it than disturbing.

BERMAN: I got to say, we always like to say this is isn't an issue of politics, but really this isn't an issue of politics.

KUCINICH: This isn't an issue of politics.

BERMAN: This is a moral question here. I mean, this is just the story of John Kelly, whether or not the White House Chief of Staff is comfortable with someone that this close to the president being accused of domestic abuse.

RYE: But you have someone who is the president being accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by multiple women, so are we that surprised that this is an issue in this White House? This is about the lifestyles of the rich and ratchet, frankly. This was life of the rich and famous back in the day. These folks are problematic. They are privileged and they are used to consequences going past them, going right by them. So I'm not surprised by John Kelly's reaction to this. The president has some issues around this.

BERMAN: Alice, is that fair?

STEWART: Sure. I think, look, people in this White House looked at Porter as someone with an impeccable pedigree and work performance in the White House that may have been stellar, but that overshadowed their judgment and good judgment on what the right thing to do with regard to these domestic abuse charges. Look, he denies this happened. He says that what is being reported isn't anywhere close to reality, but I think their stories and their claims far outweigh his lame denials in this.

And I think the White House, moment they heard about this, should have let him go and what is even more disturbing, John, you talked to a few people, the fact that he had no full security clearance and he had access to these documents, that is a huge security risk for this country. And he's someone that is easily compromised by those who want to find someone who has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. I think all of these issues need to be seriously addressed. But more than anything, he doesn't need to leave on his own terms. He needs to leave right now.

BERMAN: And we have not heard that he's gone yet. The timeline moved up.

[10:25:01] So we were told today would be his last day, but as far as we know, he hasn't walked out that door yet. So we're watching that very, very closely.

Jackie, again, this is a Rob Porter story, accused of doing horrible, awful things. But this is also very much a John Kelly story, the Chief of Staff, Chief of Staff, Jackie, who has been in the center of his own controversies. He was supposed to be the guy to clean up White House controversies. Yet he has been a central figure, even maybe the causal figure, for several issues lately. You know, calling DACA immigrants lazy people, saying they should get off the couch. Suggesting, you know, making comments about the civil war, the comments he made back when we learned about the soldier being killed in Africa, going after Frederica Wilson.

KUCINICH: Right. There is a question of leadership here. There is a question of judgment here. Of someone that was supposed to be the adult in the room. And will this lead to his ouster? I don't know. The president wasn't happy with him reportedly over some of the comments that Kelly made about him because once, you know, when the staffer says something negative about the president, it matters more than you know, maybe some of these other issues that are more important.

So we'll have to wait and see, but certainly there is cause for concern. I have to bring up the fact that hope hicks who reportedly is in a relationship recently with Rob Porter, the fact that she was allowed to craft this -- help craft this statement that the White House put on, that, again, that is a lack of judgment. That is a lack of leadership. The fact that she was allowed to do that -- that is -- it is unprofessional and, again, I'll use the word again, it is disturbing.

STEWART: And, John, if I can just say -

BERMAN: Go ahead.

STEWART: I think she's a beautiful young woman. She can date whoever she wants to do. That's her personal business. But professionally to Jackie's point. When you're involved in a personal relationship with someone, and a PR crisis, you should be the last one drafting a character statement on his behalf when it comes to something so important.

BERMAN: All right, Jackie, Angela, Alice, thank you all, very, very much.

A key U.S. ally South Korea meeting with Kim Jong-un's sister, is this a sign of thawing relations, a sign that South Korea is going its own way despite what the U.S. might want? Stick around. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)