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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Vice President Pence, Sister of North Korean Leader Sit Together at Olympics; President Trump Defends Aide Accused of Domestic Abuse. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: An accused domestic abuser in the White House, and the president just wished him well.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump breaking his silence on now former chief aide Rob Porter, as if Porter had been accused of stealing stationary, instead of punching or choking or emotionally crippling two ex-wives and abusing an ex-girlfriend.

For up to a year, senior White House aides knew that a man with incredible access to the president and an interim security clearance had two ex-wives accusing him of domestic violence and still there was a White House scramble to defend him. Why?

Freeze-out at the Winter Games. Kim Jong-un's sister sits a few feet from Vice President Mike Pence and shakes the hand of the president of South Korea. Is North Korea's propaganda machine going to win the gold?

Good afternoon. And welcome to the lead. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump this afternoon bid a fond farewell to a senior aide accused of abusing two ex-wives and a girlfriend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he's also very sad.

Now, he also -- as you probably know, he says he's innocent. And I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It has been a rocky week for the White House.

On Tuesday night, "The Daily Mail" published allegations by two ex- wives about White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, both of them saying Porter physically abused them. Soon after, The Intercept published a photograph of one of Porter's

ex-wives, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye which she said Porter gave her in 2005.

Both media outlets and CNN also obtained a police protective order filed by Porter's other ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, in 2010. Willoughby talked to Anderson Cooper why she took out that protective order.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: He came to the apartment where I was staying and refused to leave. And after he did ultimately leave and I closed the door and locked it behind him, he returned a moment later and punched in the glass.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN has also learned that in recent weeks a third woman, an ex-girlfriend of Porters', reached out to the White House with more allegations of abuse by Porter and a warning that Porter might harm the woman he's now dating, White House Communication Director Hope Hicks.

When the news broke Tuesday, the White House defended Porter strongly. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called him "a man of true integrity and honor." But after seeing the black eye photograph and the ensuing scandal, Kelly then said he was shocked by the allegations, allegations that it turns out he had first heard about last November.

White House chief counsel Don McGahn has known about problems between Porter and his ex-wives longer than that, for more than a year, problems that were holding up Porter's FBI security clearance.

To be clear, senior White House officials knew about these accusations against Porter by his ex-wives, and they protected Porter and they promoted Porter. But the media coverage this week proved too much. And Porter resigned, over the objections of many in the White House, including Kelly, we were told.

Now, the way the White House has dealt with this scandal has dismayed even some of its strongest supporters, even some White House aides. And today it might have gotten even worse, because this was President Trump's response of the.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We wish him well. He worked very hard. I found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well.

It's an obviously tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: "It's a tough time for Rob Porter," the president said. "We hope he has a great career ahead of him."

So the president expressed sympathy for Porter, wished him well, said it was a sad time for him, said it was a tough time for him, and reminded everyone that Porter denies the charges. That's what the president said. That's what we all heard.

Here's what we didn't hear. Any expression of sympathy for Porter's ex-wife, Colbie Holderness. Any expression of sympathy for Porter's second ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby. Any expressed sympathy the ex- girlfriend who warned the White House about Porter's alleged abusive behavior.

Though perhaps we should not be surprised by any us, given that the White House position when it comes to claims of women that men in and around the White House have behaved abhorrently, whether President Trump or Steve Bannon or Andy Puzder or Rob Porter, the position has been historically to stand by the plenty and in many cases call the women liars.

CNN's Pamela Brown joins me now live from the White House.

And, Pamela, does the White House realize at all that an expression of sympathy for any of these three women might have been appropriate?

[16:05:03]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Some White House officials I have spoken to, Jake, have certainly expressed dismay, even a sense of exasperation that the president came out today making those comments defending Rob Porter, making no mention of the domestic violence allegations or the women in this case, after the White House has been trying to clean up its response to all of this, its handling of all of this over the last 24 hours-plus.

This comes as the fallout continues in the West Wing over the abuse allegations, and the questions remain about why more wasn't done soon when top White House aides knew about these allegations, even last fall.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): President Trump publicly responding for the first time to abuse allegations against former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who resigned Wednesday.

TRUMP: We wish him well. He worked very hard. I found out about it recently and I was surprised by it.

BROWN: The president making no mention of the women who accused Porter of verbal and physical abuse.

TRUMP: It was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he's also very sad. Now, he also -- as you probably know, he says he's innocent. And I

think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent.

BROWN: The president's focus of Porter's claim of innocence clashes with the explanation at yesterday's White House briefing that things changed after these things surfaced.

QUESTION: What was so shocking that had changed?

RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: It's the full nature of the allegation, particularly the images.

BROWN: Meanwhile, sources telling CNN there is growing frustration among White House aides and Trump allies over how Chief of Staff John Kelly handled the abuse claims against Porter.

Sources say Kelly and top White House aides knew for months, but never started an internal investigation. Sources say Kelly told White House staffers today he took immediate and direct action when he learned of the allegations.

On Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Porter had resigned and would temporarily stay on board the ensure a smooth transition. Then yesterday, Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said Porter was terminated and defended Kelly.

SHAH: I know there have been reports about the chief of staff. He became fully aware about these allegations yesterday.

BROWN: Kelly sending a memo to White House staffers Thursday night addressing the accusations made against Porter, writing: "I want you know that we all take matters of domestic violence seriously."

Also today, there are increasing questions about White House counsel Don McGahn's role. In early 2017, Porter told McGahn his ex-wives may present potentially damaging information during his FBI background check. One of the ex-wives, Jenny Willoughby, telling CNN:

JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: They were asking me to describe his character, asking me to describe anything I thought might be problem at his position. And they did ask what was the nature of our relationship and they did ask if I felt that he would be different professionally vs. privately. And I was very candid and frank and detailed with them about my marriage.

BROWN: The FBI sent its preliminary report last spring, including the details provided by the wives, to the White House.

In the fall, Porter was interviewed by the FBI for a second time. And after domestic issues were brought up, he informed McGahn of the interview. McGahn was told by the White House Security Office in November that there were -- quote -- "domestic issues" in Porter's background.

Kelly was also made aware of Porter's issues then. And in November, Porter's ex-girlfriend contacted McGahn, telling him of the abuse allegations and expressing concern about Porter's romantic relationship with White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: A source telling my colleague Kaitlan Collins that the president has also grown increasingly frustrated with Hicks after she, along with other White House aides, helped draft the initial White House statement.

The White House then said she later recused herself from any matters relating to Porter. But according to this source, the president has told those close to him that he believes Hicks put her own priorities over his in this case -- Jake.

TAPPER: Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

My political panel is here with me.

Kaitlan Collins, let me start with you, because Pamela was just using some of your reporting.

Do you think that Hope Hicks' job or Chief of Staff John Kelly's job are on the bubble? Are they at risk of being fired?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's not clear that it is going to happen tonight, that they're in jeopardy, their positions in the West Wing.

They're two of the most high-profile people in the West Wing, and Hope especially because she is such a trusted confidant of the president. This is really the first time we're seeing the two of them split on something. You saw there the president expressed sadness for Rob Porter, for his future career. He wished that he did well.

But I know privately the president was actually pretty surprised by these allegations made against Porter and was very upset with the way it had been handled throughout the White House, mainly focusing on the way Hope Hicks has handled this, because not only did she not consult the president when she drafted that initial statement, with the help of other aides, defending Porter.

[16:10:10]

But also the president feels she's really allowed her relationship with him to cloud her judgment here, which anyone can see why.

So it is not clear that John Kelly and Hope Hicks will not be in the White House on Monday, sitting at their desks, but it definitely shows a downward slide for both of them. John Kelly has kind of been on one in recent months, in recent weeks, and Hope Hicks, this is first time we have really seen this happen to her.

TAPPER: But this wasn't a Trump scandal, per se, until today. He's mad at Hope Hicks for letting her judgment be clouded by her feelings. Why did President Trump give the statement he gave today in which he

is not saying anything sympathetic toward the women, not taking the charges of domestic abuse seriously at all?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, not only that. He says, I hope he has a great career.

It seems to me it's entirely likely that he shouldn't have had a great career thus far. You can evaluate this -- I sometimes think I'm done being surprised by these sort of reactions to things from the White House that are just sort of amoral and insane.

This one, look, there's three women. They're contemporaneous reports, they're police reports, there's photographic evidence, and they're telling the FBI. I have sat for these interviews for clearances before. You don't take it lightly, unless you're in the Trump orbit, I guess, talking to the FBI. You want to be careful about what you're saying.

This is not a low-stakes thing they're bringing to the table here. The Trump orbit values loyalty and they value fighting. Those are the two important things, right? Then you get a bunch of bullies, frankly, and among the bullies are sort of like stunningly, deeply insecure, emasculated kind of men that need to push around a lady?

You might end up with that. And you might end up with a bunch of people who don't recognize the red flags for that.

TAPPER: It is just astounding that here you have three women, including women that have gone, at least one woman who went to the White House. The other two have talked to the FBI.

And President Trump doesn't even acknowledge that they exist, much less express sympathy for them.

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I think what we should really focus on is the words the president has said and what that means, not just for the scandal, but for women around the country who are facing a situation like this, where they're facing a spouse that's abusing them or a boyfriend that's abusing them.

Some of them are young and they hear the president of the United States tell them that the guy is great. Doesn't listen to them, doesn't hear anything from them.

We have heard all this spin this week that John Kelly is in hot water and the president is really upset. He doesn't look upset at all. He doesn't look angry at all. If anything, he sounds angry at the situation that this guy had to leave. He doesn't sound angry or upset that he hired somebody for a secure position that basically abuses women regularly.

TAPPER: For those keeping track at home, there have now been three men in the administration, including a nominee to be in the administration, accused of domestic violence, Rob Porter, Steve Bannon, and former labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder. The president himself has defended a number of other people accused of

sexual harassment or abuse, including Roy Moore, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Mike Tyson, and Bill Clinton. That's back before Bill Clinton -- ran against Hillary Clinton. And then, of course, he stopped defending him.

The knee-jerk response, Kaitlan, is, I don't believe the woman. I believe the man.

COLLINS: Yes, that certainly is.

The president definitely has a pattern of doing this. And as you saw him there in the Oval Office today, he defended the job that Rob Porter did when he was in the West Wing, what a stellar job he did, which pretty much nobody is disputing.

But being good at your job is not an excuse for beating your wife. You do not get an exception just because you're good at your for doing that.

But, as you just said, we have seen the president do this with not only Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Roy Moore, but he also gives voice, gives weight more to their denials more than the women's credible allegations and the photos.

He said today we have to keep in mind Rob Porter denies this and says he's innocent.

TAPPER: Amazing.

Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

Aside from the president's reaction, the question, why the slow response from senior White House aides who were told of this months ago? It's becoming something of a pattern. We are going to talk about that next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:00] TAPPER: We're back and we're continuing the conversation with my political panel, questions over who knew exactly what and when concerning the domestic abuse allegations made by two ex-wives and a girlfriend against now Former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter. Vice President Joe Biden, Former Vice President Joe Biden just weighed in on the president saying nice things about Rob Porter. Take a listen.

BIDEN: Just read it as I, before I walked onstage. A statement by the president saying he wishes him luck. He has so much talent. That's like saying, that axe murderer out there, he's a great painter. Now think, think, translate that into everyday terms. Is there any other crime, and it's a crime -- where there would be an explanation -- the reason why we shouldn't pay attention to the transgression is because they're good at something. TAPPER: The vice president does seem to be getting at something,

which is the White House Senior Staff knew about these allegations, Kaitlan, a long time ago. Don (INAUDIBLE) knew them at least a year ago, that there were problems, accusations and Chief of Staff Kelly knew about them at least as recently as November; and yet they all liked Rob Porter. They all thought he was good at his job, so they just kind of sat on it, which is really amazing when you think about it -- credibly accused by two ex-wives (LAUGHS) of physical abuse.

[16:20:00] COLLINS: Yeah, they prioritize being good at your job -- because we know how chaotic this White House is, Rob Porter was one person in the West Wing that -- before the last 48 hours, did not contribute to any of the chaos here. He was someone who people saw as being a professional, being experienced, more a Washington type and so they liked him and they clearly prioritized that over these very legitimate concerns that were coming from the FBI, from these women, that the White House counsel, (INAUDIBLE) White House lawyer Don McGahn was aware of and even very senior administration officials were aware as early as last fall, yet not only did they keep Rob Porter around, his status was elevated once John Kelly came into the mix.

So it goes to show you, and we're really seeing this campaign to cover up, you know, the cover-up. John Kelly not only sending that memo to White House staff last night saying that domestic abuse is a problem and that he does not take those accusations lightly and that if you're having any problems, call 1-800 whatever and then also, he held that meeting with senior staffers today to go over the timeline of the Porter resignation, what role he played in that and one of the things I want to point out is that he told senior staff that within 40 minutes of him seeing the photos of one of Rob Porter's ex-wives' black eyes, he took action to get Rob Porter's resignation.

Those photos were Tweeted around roughly 2:00 in the morning. At 2:00 p.m. the White House issued a statement on John Kelly's behalf, praising and defending Rob Porter. I find it very hard to believe that the chief of staff in the White House did not see photos of black eyes for 12 hours.

TAPPER: Well, but here's the other point, though, Neera, which is -- what if there hadn't been a photograph?

TANDEN: Exactly, exactly.

TAPPER: A lot of women suffer abuse and, and there are no marks or they don't take pictures of it.

TANDEN: And this is what it's already (INAUDIBLE) -- they should then made a decision that beating up women is just not that important. These are women who went to the FBI. The FBI -- it's not the women themselves -- the FBI told the White House, look, we've investigated this. This is the problem of why he cannot (INAUDIBLE) -- the FBI is making a decision -- he cannot get his classification because they have these accusations.

The White House -- a bunch of people, not one person, multiple people make the decision -- we don't care enough about domestic violence (LAUGHS) against these women to say, to hold up this guy's job. Were it any other White House, as soon as you would hear that, you would get rid of the person. You would say, you cannot be in this job.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even just for self-preservation.

(CROSSTALK)

TANDEN: For self-preservation, but honestly I think most White Houses would be so disgusted at this --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: It would be a moral stance.

TANDEN: It would be a moral stain --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: By Obama, by Bush, yeah.

TANDEN: -- on the White House. Any of these (INAUDIBLE).

TAPPER: Last night on Anderson Cooper's show, he interviewed one of Porter's ex-wives, Jennifer Willoughby, and this is kind of a theme that's been going on here, among the two ex-wives and also the ex- girlfriend -- concern about the White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, who is dating Rob Porter -- let's listen.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Rob Porter's now in a Rob Porter with the White House Press Secretary Hope Hicks. Do you think he's changed?

JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY: I don't think he's changed.

COOPER: Does that worry you?

WILLOUGHBY: It worries me for a lot of reasons. I mean, it definitely worries me because if I'm being frank with you, if he hasn't already been abusive with Hope, he will. And particularly now that he's under a lot of stress and scrutiny -- that's when the behaviors come out. And if he hasn't already, he will.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, that's pretty chilling.

MARY KATHARINE HAM: Yeah, it's scary and I don't, I don't think generally when someone has done this several times, unless they're getting very serious help, you're not sure that that's going to end. Look, I think -- and I'm not saying this to belittle this at all, or belittle the allegations -- but we elected a den of reality show villains to be in the White House and that is the show that we're getting here.

And by the way, we saw this on the campaign trail, on a much smaller scale when Corey Lewandowski, a close and loyal aide to Trump, manhandled a female reporter and -- because I was operating under the old rules, said, well, surely he'll be reprimanded and/or fired -- because it's on audio and videotape and there are eye witnesses, who are other reporters -- and no. In fact, a couple days later or maybe the next day, Trump got onstage and singled him out for praise, because the loyalty and the fighting are what is important and if the collateral damage happens to be some ladies that you know, then apparently that's not so bad.

TAPPER: Everyone stick around.

HAM: Not so bad.

[16:25:00] TAPPER: We will have a lot more to talk about. So how much classified information crossed the desk of Rob Porter as staff secretary? And how should the chief of staff have handled this? Somebody who has held both titles, Staff Secretary and White House Chief of Staff -- joins me next to weigh in. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Here's the breaking news just in. The White House is denying a new report on a different network -- alleging that Chief of Staff John Kelly has made clear to President Trump that he's willing to resign over this Rob Porter scandal, which has plagued the White House this week. Spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN On the Record, he has not offered to resign. Joining me now to discuss the Rob Porter scandal is John Podesta. He served as Staff Secretary and Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House. He was also a counselor to President Obama and served as the Chairman of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. John, so good to see you. Thanks for being here.

(CROSSTALK)

As someone who dealt with a fair amount of scandal in the Clinton White House, as Staff Secretary and then Chief of Staff, how do you think the White House, the Trump White House has dealt with the Rob Porter allegations?

JOHN PODESTA, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, you're supposed to cauterize the wound and instead I think they've just made it worse almost every day. You know, first by giving a solid endorsement to him when they knew that he had this problem in his background -- as saying that he still had the confidence of the Chief of Staff of the White House, that he was going to remain in the position and then reversing course. Then the Chief of Staff telling his staff that he immediately acted, when they knew that wasn't true and now of course, this morning with the president, kind of doubling down by saying that.