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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Pence, Kim Jong-un's Sister Seated Just Feet Apart; NYT: Third- Ranking Official At DOJ Stepping Down; White House Lawyer McGahn Advised At Least Four Times Of Domestic Issues In Porter's Past. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:00] JOHN PODESTA, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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 how much they appreciated Mr. Porter's service in the White House, without having any comment about the fact, of concern for his two ex-wives.

TAPPER: I take us inside the White House would a Chief of Staff be aware of these allegations, especially if the two women, the two ex- wives had told them to the FBI and it was at least according to what we've reported, the reason he didn't have a permanent security clearance?

PODESTA: Well I think that Mr. McGahn raised that to the Chief of Staff's attention because I think he was concerned about it. The Staff Secretary manages the paper flow to and from the President, so very important job that nobody has ever heard of in the White House. When offered the job by President-elect Clinton in 1993. I had to call a friend to find out what the job was.

But it is a very important and relevant job that manages all the paper that's going to and from the President, including paper from the NSC, TSSEI, sensitive compartmentalized information, code worded information's going through to the White House. So it doesn't surprise me at all that the security office would bring there to Mr. Mcgahn's attention, then Mr. Mcgahn would bring it to the Chief of Staff's attention.

The fact that they decided that notwithstanding, that they would just leave the security clearance issue open when they knew that he was unlikely to have a permanent security clearance, that's surprising. They should have taken the action earlier.

TAPPER: Why wouldn't the FBI grant him a permanent security clearance because he had these allegations of domestic abuse, because that makes him susceptible to blackmail?

PODESTA: Sure I think that - first of all you don't want people in the White House as a first matter that are -- have carried on that sort of conduct. And I think you want to draw a sharp line. General Kelly had to be aware of that, given his tenure as Head of Southern Command during the rise of concern about sexual abuse and abuse in general in the military.

So the fact that the underlying allegations themselves, I think, meant that he had a problem and he is not the person you want to continue in service. But I think on the security clearance matter. Yes, you could be subject to blackmail, to disclosure, to what in the end of the day happened to him, which is being exposed for having this course of conduct which a restraining order was issued against him for threatening his second ex-wife.

And then of course these photos which have been provided to the FBI, we don't know whether Mr. McGahn had seen them or General Kelly had seen them. But the photos of the first wife's incident where he evidently punched her in the eye.

TAPPER: Do you think McGahn or Kelly should be fired or lose their jobs in any way, resign or be fired?

PODESTA: I thought McGahn should lose his job after Sally Yates went to him and said the National Security Adviser at the beginning of the administration has been compromised by the Russians. And he did nothing with that information. In fact, he challenged why the Justice Department even cared whether General Flynn had been compromised by the Russians.

TAPPER: Let's talk about this scandal for a second.

PODESTA: I think it is a course of conduct that they just don't care that much about security there. And McGahn has the role of enforcing the norms in the White House. And I think, you know, I thought he should have resigned back then. I think he should resign right now.

TAPPER: Just McGahn what about Kelly?

PODESTA: With respect to General Kelly look I think he is on very, very thin ice. I think that he - it's hard to lose a Chief of Staff. Particularly one who is thought to have brought some level of discipline to the White House, which was, you know, highly chaotic under the previous Chief of Staff. But I think at this stage, particularly given the last couple of days where he is changing his story. I think he is on very, very thin ice.

TAPPER: I do want to ask you, we only have a short time; I want to ask you about this Steele dossier. You have said that you did not know that the Clinton campaign and the DNC had asked to fund the Steele dossier through fusion GPS. Do you know who did, who authorized it?

PODESTA: The contract was between Perkins Coie, Marc Elias.

TAPPER: So it was the lawyer?

[16:35:00]

PODESTA: The lawyer - first of all, fusion came to our lawyer, Marc Elias, who is a partner at Perkins Coie and was the general council of the campaign and said we've been doing this work on behalf of a republican-funded enterprise during the course of the primaries. Primaries were over. We think we have found things and we would like to continue it. Mr. Elias had the authority to do subcontracts and we knew that he was going to do back ground research, particularly on Mr. Trump's business relationship.

TAPPER: But you didn't know about the Steele part of it, which came later.

PODESTA: We didn't know about fusion. We didn't know who is subcontractor was.

TAPPER: Oh okay.

PODESTA: And we did know that fusion had contracted with Chris Steele.

TAPPER: And are you surprised at all that this has become what it was? That this opposition research document was used at least in part to justify a FISA warrant against Carter Page and all the rest?

PODESTA: Well look I think what is important, is what - are the underlying - is the underlying information true? I think the republican effort is a largely a smoke screen to distract from the fact that these contacts, the investigation began with, because of the activity that's Mr. Papadopoulos that occurred before Chris Steele showed up on the screen.

So I think they should be more concerned about whether the underlying allegations are true, rather than trying to besmirch Mr. Steele who had a history of providing valuable intelligence, obviously when he was a member of the British Intelligence at Mi 6 and then subsequently.

TAPPER: Thank you so much John Podesta, appreciate your being here. So coming up next the pictures that speak volumes and Vice President Mike Pence seated just feet away from Kim Jong-un's sister at the Olympics. Is the US delegation going out of it's way to avoid contact? We're going to go live to South Korea to the Olympics next stay with us.

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[16:40:00]

TAPPER: In our world lead the photograph everyone's talking about, Vice President Pence sitting just feet away from Kim Jong-un's sister for the Olympic opening ceremonies. No handshake, no talk in a diplomatic deep freeze. "CNN's" Will Ripley joins me now live from Sunchang in South Korea. Will no interactions whatsoever. What might this mean?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly this is an attempt by the United States and the Vice President not to give any more legitimacy to the North Korean regime than the mere fact that they were sitting close together already did. So the Vice President actually switched seats to sit farther away from Kim Yo-Jong and Kim Yong Nam, Kim Yo-Jong the sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong- un.

And Kim Yong Nam the ceremonial head of state. There was no handshaking whatsoever when the unified Korean delegation came in March. Vice President Pence notably stayed sitting. He did not stand up. He did not cheer. And again, this is certainly a propaganda win, nonetheless, for North Korea to have these images, showing two top level officials sitting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and the Vice President just a short distance away.

TAPPER: We also saw a hand shake between South Korea President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-Jong. Are there any updates on that upcoming lunch between them tomorrow, North and South?

RIPLEY: We know its going to be happing at the Blue House in Seoul and the fact that it's a lunch, an informal discussion is significant. Because it gives Kim Yo-Jong more power, more freedom to have the kind of discussion that she wouldn't be able to have at the higher level talks because she technically isn't the highest ranking member of the delegation.

Although clearly the most influential. She could pass a message from Kim Jong-un directly to President Moon Jae-in and several diplomatic sources are telling me Jake that she possibly, there's a very good chance she could extend an invitation to President Moon to visit North Korea sometime this year.

That would be significant because North Korea wants to continue this semblance or this image of diplomacy even as the United States is calling on South Korea to disengage after the Olympics. They're saying don't fall for the charm offensive, they think North Korea is containing to develop it's nuclear weapons and all of this is just for show.

TAPPER: Alright, Will Ripley in South Korea thanks so much. I want to bring in the Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US National Security council staffer Jamie Metzl, what was your response to that photograph? Did you think it was awkward?

JAMIE METZL, SENIOR FELLOW ATLANTIC COUNCIL: It was certainly awkward for the United States. But it was a massive propaganda win for the North Koreans. Over the last years of recent years North Korea has made huge advances in developing its nuclear weapons and testing and all sorts of aggressive behavior.

And now with the United States, with no real strategy has pushed for more aggressive responses, North Korea has suddenly shifted and embraced South Korea. And as North Korea and South Korea move toward closer relations with each other, the United States is in many ways on the outside. So the US, South Korea alliance is really at risk in a way it hasn't been in years.

TAPPER: Take a listen to Vice President Pence this morning.

MIKE PENCE, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: We will continue to seize every opportunity to ensure that North Korea does not use the powerful imagery and back drop of the Olympics to paper over an appalling record of human rights and a pattern of developing weapons.

TAPPER: Is that the right note to sound?

METZEL: Well it is certainly correct that North Korea has an appalling, atrocious human rights record. It's also true that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons that threaten not just South Korea but Japan, China, the United States, and others. So it's a very, very big deal. And it's certainly right to be concerned about North Korea's behavior and then letting this charm offensive paper over everything that has happened.

But what's missing is a coherent American strategy for rallying international pressure to limit North Korea's worst abuses. Because the United States hasn't done that, because we've let ourselves be outmaneuvered by the North Koreans, Pence is in the position of being the party pooper at this party. So it's really unfortunate but it is absolutely right that North Korea is a rogue regime but they've outplayed us.

[16:45:00] TAPPER: When you say that they've outplayed us, they've outplayed the United States, what do you mean by that? You mean because they've reached out a hand to South Korea, that they sent this delegate, Kim Jong-un's sister to the Olympics? Is that outmaneuvering?

METZL: What I mean is that they've developed nuclear weapons. They've developed a credible nuclear deterrent. And because the United States under President Trump and even under the previous administration hasn't been able to put forward a coherent strategy. And even today doesn't at all have a coherent strategy. We've created an opportunity for the north to both establish its nuclear deterrent and to reach out to position itself as the good guy and to get some leaders of the South Korean government, including President Moon, to talk about how to improve relationships -- relation going forward. And so after the Olympics, while the U.S. is going to pressure for South Korea to disengage from the North, there's going to be a lot of pressure for the South to engage with the North and that much more likely what's going to happen. And so the United States isn't at all advancing its denuclear agenda and the United States is being weakened while North Korea is being strengthened.

TAPPER: Jamie Mitzl, thanks so much. I appreciate your time. Now to "POLITICS LEAD" and the pressure in those in the White House who knew of the domestic issues in Rob Porter's past, next. Did they have a responsibility to raise a red flag? Stay with us.,

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[16:50:00] TAPPER: We're back with the "POLITICS LEAD." We have some breaking news now. The New York Times is reporting that Rachel Brand who is the number three at the Justice Department, she's under Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is stepping down, according to the New York Times. Let's talk about this and much more with Jeffrey Toobin. Jeffrey, what is the potential significance of the number three at the Justice Department, the woman right under Rod Rosenstein who supervise the Russia investigation stepping down?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's the significance, is that you know, as we have all been following moment to moment, the President has certainly made statements privately and virtually, publicly, about how angry he is at Rod Rosenstein, how much he disapproves of the job Rosenstein has done as Deputy Attorney General. If he fires Rosenstein, his responsibilities for the Mueller investigation would go from Deputy Attorney General, which is what he is, to the Associate Attorney General, which is what Rachel Brand is.

So Rachel Brand is the next person in line to supervise the Mueller investigation. If she's gone and Rosenstein gets fired, then things get really frankly confusing about who is the supervisor of the Mueller office. There might be -- there would have to be new people nominated or I would have to check the statute about how far down in the Justice Department hierarchy would go to who controls Rod Rosenstein. But everyone had assumed that Rachel Brand who is a very respected Washington lawyer was going to stay in the administration for longer than just barely a year.

TAPPER: Yes, she's only been on the job nine months. Quite curious, we'll find out more about that. I want to ask you about this Rob Porter controversy. White House Counsel Don McGahn was told at least four times of domestic issues in Porter's background by porter himself a year ago, though it's not clear how in detail he went. Then again, after his FBI interview, the two ex-wives, of course, saying that he domestically abused them, then by the White House security office and then, of course, an ex-girlfriend of Porter contacted the White House, told Don McGahn about allegations. As a lawyer, did McGahn have an obligation to report something this significant about Porter to maybe even President Trump?

TOOBIN: Not just as a lawyer but as a government official with access to classified information. This is classic blackmail material, you know, a history of domestic violence that was secret at the time. An interim security clearance is not supposed to be indefinite. I mean, these people have been in office for more than a year. They should have had a security clearance or they should have been thrown out of office. And the fact that McGahn just kicked the can down the road here, I mean, it just illustrates how this whole process was governed more by the old boys network, taking care of you know, the guy they like, rather than taking seriously the fact this guy was a serial wife abuser and a woman abuser, not just the women he was married to, and it was a threat to national security. So he had an absolute obligation to bring this to a head and either get him confirmed -- you know -- so he had an obligation.

TAPPER: All right, I want to ask you about the new CNN Original Series, "THE RADICAL STORY OF PATTY HEARST." You're the Executive Producer, you also wrote a book on Patty Hearst, she now lives as a lady of luxury as it were in the suburbs raising show dogs. Do you get the sense that she wants to hide her turn toward terrorism from her modern life?

TOOBIN: Well, she certainly doesn't want to relive this experience and I can't say I blame her for that, but the story is even more incredible than people vaguely -- you know, who have some recollection. You know, it's a long time ago. 1974 was the kidnapping and the fact that -- you know, Jake, think about this. There were 1,000 political bombing as year in the United States during the early and mid-70s. Think about what that must have been like, how different that is from today.

And that crazy environment was what led to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and what made it so compelling and what I think makes our documentary so terrific is you see the mystery at the heart of it which is did she really join with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the people who captured her or was she coerced for the year and a half she was on the run with them?

TAPPER: "THE RADICAL STORY OF PATTY HEARST," it's Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. We're looking forward to it. Thanks so much. We'll be right back.

TOOBIN: All righty now.

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TAPPER: Join me on Sunday for "STATE OF THE UNION." My guest will be White House Counsel Kellyanne Conway and former Department of Homeland Security --