Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Wishes Porter Well; Trump Defends Porter; Pence Feet from Kim Jong-un's Sister. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Damascus, 3:00 a.m. Saturday in Pyongyang. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

A White House rocks. The scandal over the west wing's handling of domestic abuse allegations against a top aide now zeroing in on the president's chief of staff and the White House counsel. What did they know and when did they know it?

Plus, new revelations from Porter's ex-wife. How she says he asked her to downplay the allegations, and why she's worried about the safety of White House communications director, Hope Hicks.

And the image the entire world is talking about. The American vice president sitting just feet away from Kim Jong-Un's sister as North Korea steals the show at the Olympics right in the middle of a nuclear standoff.

All that coming up. But let's start with the White House's growing Rob Porter problem, and the troubling questions swirling around the former White House staff secretary, Rob Porter.

Questions like, how did an alleged spousal abuser rise to such prominence in the west wing of the White House? And why did the White House, especially the White House chief of staff, basically look the other way until graphic new pictures surfaced?

Let's go to our White House Reporter Kaitlan Collins. She's covering the story for us.

The White House communications director, Hope Hicks, Kaitlan, has now emerged also at the center of this storm. What are you hearing about her and the president?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf. We do have some news about their relationship. But first, I'd like to note that the White House actually just brought reporters into the Oval Office, because the president was meeting with one of his supporters.

And he actually spoke about this Rob Porter scandal for the first time that we're hearing from the president directly on this. And he said that he wished Porter well. He found out about the allegations against him recently.

He remarked that it was sad. But added that Porter has denied these allegations, and that is something that people should keep in mind.

So, we are seeing that this is very much something that is on the president's mind here, Wolf.

But, yes, we are learning that the fallout from this scandal relating to Rob Porter is affecting one of the president's relationships with his closest confidantes, top aides, and that is Hope Hicks.

Because sources are telling us that the president has grown increasingly frustrated with Hope Hicks in recent days in the way that she's handled the fallout from this scandal.

The first being that she did not consult the president when her and several other top White House aides drafted that initial, glowing statement that defended Rob Porter.

And, secondly, the president believes that Hope Hicks' romantic relationship with Porter is clouding her judgment and affecting the decisions that she's making from a White House standpoint.

So, overall, Wolf, the president believes that Hope Hicks is putting her priorities ahead of his and ahead of the White House's here. So, we are seeing that.

But she's certainly not the only White House staffer that's being affected by all this. John Kelly has also come into the spotlight for what he knew and when.

I should note that though their positions in this White House do not seem to be in jeopardy, there has been some buzz lately about the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney.

Because the president's been quizzing his aides, his close friends recently what they think about Mulvaney. And though he's not explicit, most aides believe, Wolf, that he's referencing that chief of staff position.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting that, all of a sudden, this was not scheduled, Kaitlan, you point out, the president and the White House, they alerted the White House press pool that he was ready to make a statement in the Oval Office. They were called in.

We're standing by momentarily we're going to play that tape. But, clearly, the president knew he was going to be asked about this scandal.

COLLINS: Yes, he certainly did. Rob Porter worked in very close proximity to the president. Because not only did he handle the paper flow, the flow of information that crossed the president's desk, whether it would be an executive order or any kind of memorandum, he also --

BLITZER: All right, hold on, Kaitlan. Here's the tape of the president in the Oval Office.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, 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 a, 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.

But 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. So, you'll have to talk to him about that.

[13:05:00] But we absolutely wish him well. He did a very good job while he was at the White House.

Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, everybody. Thank you very much.

BLITZER: All right, you can see the president. Some more questions are being shouted but reporters are being escorted out of the Oval Office.

I'm going to get back to Kaitlyn in a moment. But let's get some analysis of what we just heard. CNN Political Analyst David Gregory is with us. Our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, the president was pretty enthusiastic in praising this individual who has now been kicked out of the White House.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, I don't know why I'm surprised because I shouldn't be surprised. Because, particularly with issues like this, accusations on a personal level, the president tends to rally around the person being accused because -- and he has told many a friend this, but because he has felt like he has been falsely accused.

Having said that, the fact that he did not mention one word, one syllable, about these two women, plus apparently an ex-girlfriend, who -- particularly the ex-wives, who are talking in great detail about abuse, physical, verbal abuse, is outrageous. I mean, I'm sorry, it just is. It just is.

And it is tone-deaf to the times. It is tone-deaf to the situation that he has had which is a person who has been in the closest proximity possible to this man alleged to have done some pretty horrible things.

And we've seen the pictures. But, more importantly, we have heard from one of his ex-wives. Both of them, but particularly one to CNN. About the details of the allegations of physical abuse. And to not even have a nod to that. And instead, just profusely, effusively, praise the work that Porter did, is just -- it's sad.

BLITZER: Yes, the president went out of his way to point out, David, that Porter says he's innocent. We absolutely wish him well. The president said he was surprised by all of this. He worked very hard. Only found out about it recently. Obviously, a very tough time for Rob Porter.


BLITZER: That's what the president said.

GREGORY: Right. And, you know, others who Porter has worked for, like Orrin Hatch on the Hill, has talked about how awful these allegations are. What a sad time it is for everybody involved.

The president of the United States didn't even talk about everybody being involved. Only Porter, as Dana says.

I agree. I mean, it's outrageous. It is part of a pattern about how this White House and how Republicans rallying around this president have come to the aid of anyone accused of sexual misconduct or abuse and not thought about those who are on the other end of it.

The other layer to this is, who knew what, when? The core competence of the White House. Why you have someone in the chief of staff, a retired Marine John Kelly, who comes from a world of order and accountability and no B.S.

And now, we're told that he was somewhat aware of these allegations? They've got a real problem. It goes to core competence. It goes to truth telling. And it goes to managing a situation that is volatile when you have someone without security clearance who's got that close of access to the president.

So, you know, look, this is another case of where this White House is underprepared and not up for the job. And they're going to have to deal with the fallout of this.

BASH: Or even more nefarious, it's not just about not being prepared or not up for it.

GREGORY: Or worse, right.

BASH: Actively having their heads in the sand.

GREGORY: Right. Right.

BASH: Which is even more troubling.


BLITZER: And, clearly, they're parsing words, saying that the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, was not fully aware. But, for months, he was aware of these allegations by the ex-wives. He was aware of the fact that for more than a year, the White House staff secretary, which is a critically important job, was denied security -- permanent full-time security clearances by the FBI because there were serious problems in his background.

BASH: Look, the way that the White House team is describing it is so painfully, painstakingly careful because they don't want to divulge -- maybe they don't know all the facts.

Maybe Raj Shaw, for example, doesn't know -- or Sarah Sanders in the press shop, they don't know all the facts of what John Kelly knew. That is totally possible.

But we first reported, the day that all of this broke, the day that Rob Porter resigned earlier this week, or was fired, that the White House chief of staff had an -- had at least an inkling about it, probably more than that, in the fall. And when I say, it, --

BLITZER: And the White House --

BASH: -- I'm talking about domestic abuse.

BLITZER: -- and the White House counsel, the top lawyer of the White House, Don McGahn, he also was -- had been briefed by the FBI.

GREGORY: Right. And there's more than one woman, two ex-wives. There's now a girlfriend that's contacted them. There's an FBI process. There's a background check process.

[13:10:02] So -- and I think anybody who would look at this would say, it's appropriate to have a process and a fair process. But that's what the government does in a background check.

And when you have these kinds of explosion allegations, you need to run them down, instead of, as Dana said, put your head in the sand. Or -- and "The Times" has reported on the fact that General Kelly has been character witness in these kinds of case before. And maybe he's got a blind spot around all of this.

But what we don't know from him is the full truth, the full story. And it's his job. And, you know, he's got a lot of his plate. He's become increasingly controversial.

And, again, we get -- people can make their own judgment about it. But we get more insight into the chaotic nature of how this president is running the west wing. Because it's a bazaar of information over there. Of people trading information about, oh, so and so's talking about Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff. Oh, the president's thinking about replacements.

There is no order. It is just a free for all over there. And in the middle, by the way, of a sensitive time in our country and on the world stage.

BLITZER: Domestic issues, national security. But listen to Jennie Willoughby, the ex-wife who spoke to our own Anderson Cooper last night. Listen to this.


JENNIE WILLOUGHBY: Knowing Rob the way that I do, he probably is able to -- even if his clearance hadn't gone through and they knew it was because of problems in his marriage, I think he was probably able to spin it in such a way that it was minimized. That it was downplayed.

And I generally believe that chief of staff Kelly thought that it was lesser than it was. And seeing those photographs -- I wish that my interview would have been enough. But seeing those photographs, sort of, solidified that, no, this is, in fact, an issue.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Rob Porter is now in a -- in a relationship with the White House press secretary, Hope Hicks. Do you think he's changed?

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. If he hasn't already, he will.


BLITZER: Hope Hicks is the 29-year-old White House communications director who has a very significant job. But she's had a romantic relationship with Rob Porter.

BASH: And, listen, I -- you know, I've had people say to me, oh, you know, you're being naive if you believe this. But others have suggested to me that part of the reason why somehow, some way this was pushed out was to be protective of Hope. People who knew that this was a possibility and were concerned about Hope, because she is well- liked inside the White House.

I just want to also say that we're talking about really big issues of national security and about how a president should act.

But we're also talking about a workplace issue that we've all -- that we've been talking about now for months and months and months. And the White House is now a workplace, according to people I talk to, where people are very upset at -- obviously, not just that Rob Porter has these allegations against him, but most importantly that their boss, the chief of staff, apparently knew about this. Had some indication about it. Didn't do anything.

But even more importantly, now that he does have all the information, put out a letter to -- a memo to staff yesterday that had no accountability, No, I should have handled this differently. No, had I known differently, I would have done it differently.


BASH: None of that accountability. And that is a really big problem.

GREGORY: And she could make it -- I've forgotten her name who was just --

BLITZER: Jennie Willoughby.

GREGORY: Yes. I mean, she does make a good point that perhaps General Kelly knew about this, at some level, allegations. And then, seeing the photos, realized, whoa, I maybe made a presumption here that was wrong. That's a fair point and it's coming from her.

But, again, I go back to process. You know, if you have a background check process that is holding up his security clearance, in a workplace that happens to be the west wing, you know, you're going to have to get to the bottom of this. This is a -- these are serious allegations.

And then, it's complicated by, you know, Hope Hicks apparently being -- you know, dating him. And then, being involved in deliberations about whether he should resign or be fired.

And then, being involved in drafting of the statement. That was -- it's so inappropriate. And, again, it's just part of a broader problem in the west wing.

And, you know, whether this -- if this was minimized, it certainly would not surprise me, given what we know about the president of the United States. That he would seek to -- you know, go to those who were accused and profess their side of it, since he's been accused himself.

But just with his attitudes about women. And not surprising he would say, oh, I'm sure this is overblown, you know.

BLITZER: The president is also said to be upset, Dana, that the deputy White House secretary, Raj Shah, yesterday in that briefing said, yes, the White House could have handled this entire issue better. He doesn't like to acknowledge that kind of stuff.

[13:15:07] BASH: You -- I don't know about you, but I could feel the breath of fresh air coming through the television screen when he did that because we haven't heard, you know, a spark of, you know, kind of -- you know, a confessional or humanity or realism of that level since the president has been -- has been in office for that reason, because he watches these briefings, he has an expectation that you don't show weakness, you don't say you're sorry, you don't -- you don't say what the reality is, but it actually -- for reporters, and for the American public, it gave, I think, Raj Shah, a lot of credibility.


BLITZER: You know, you were once a White House correspondent, so you're familiar with the routine there. They put out a lunch lid, meaning that there's nothing going to happen, but then they break the lunch lid, they call in the press pool. They say, go into the Oval Office. You know the president wants to speak about this.


BLITZER: Why would the president want to personally issue these very strong, positive statements about a man who was just fired for allegations of sexual -- of abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse of ex- wives and maybe a former girlfriend?

GREGORY: Because that's what he believes. I mean -- and the president's -- you know, one thing about President Trump, he's a transparent guy. I mean there's not left -- much left to the imagination. And whatever advice he's getting, he doesn't care. He's going to let it be known because he'll tell us and tell the public directly, or he's going to leak it to people and other people are going to talk to him and word's going to get out about him having real questions about John Kelly and being frustrated at Hope Hicks, and on and on and on. It's astonishing. I mean it's -- because it's just -- it's kind of one thing after another. And it's -- you know, again, on a day when we're in the middle of this volatility in the markets and with the games beginning in South Korea and delicate diplomacy, again it's their decision and their actions that undermine their credibility.

BLITZER: You -- and it -- the notion of the president -- and I'm just looking at some of the words that he said -- he did a good job while he was in the White House. It was very sad when we heard about it. He says he's innocent. And I'm sort of paraphrasing here. I think you have to remember that. He said that very strongly yesterday, he's innocent. We absolutely wish him well.

But you make an extremely important point.


BLITZER: He says nothing about the ex-wives.

BASH: Not a -- nothing. I mean we were all sitting here with our jaws on the desk as we were watching that tape roll live for that reason. Again, it shouldn't be surprising because this is vintage Donald Trump when it comes to accusations to very much talk about the person who is being accused and not necessarily (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: You know what I'd like to do, if we can? I'd like to queue up that tape one more time. I want to make sure we didn't miss something. Let's play it one more time and we'll listen very closely to the president, once again, in the Oval Office, calls in the press pool and they ask him a question clearly about this scandal. Here's his answer.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much.

QUESTION: Do you have a comment on Mr. Porter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, everyone.


TRUMP: Well, 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 a -- 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. But 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. So you'll have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well. He did a very good job while he was at the White House.

Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, John (ph). Appreciate it, guys. Let's go.


BLITZER: All right, so there were follow-up questions. Clearly the president wouldn't go further than that. But that was pretty surprising to hear him speaking so glowing about Rob Porter.

GREGORY: He's not thinking about this in a completely thoughtful way, thinking about everybody involved. He's clearly, if anybody is giving him constructive advice, it would have been to speak to the world about this in a way that acknowledges the allegations of abuse, how serious a matter this is, how it was mishandled within his administration, and the reverberations, which, by the way, include somebody who he clearly cares about in Rob Porter.

And I must tell you, and I think Dana knows plenty of people too, I know people personally who have worked with Porter on The Hill and who are in a state of shock about this.

BASH: Absolutely.

GREGORY: Who adore this guy and are trying to process all of this. And there ought to be a process and there ought to be some fairness, but I think at the same time we have to scrutinize what facts we know about and hold the White House accountable for that.

BASH: And it's -- can I --

[13:20:10] BLITZER: You would have thought, Dana, he would have at least said what others have said, including White House statements have included, how abhorrent domestic violence is.

BASH: Right. Sure.

BLITZER: How that must be condemned. He -- in addition to saying his heart goes out also to the ex-wives.

BASH: Yes. And as -- David, as you were talking, something else occurred to me, which -- because this is such a weird sort of triangle or square, whatever you want to say, of relationships. Hope Hicks is as close to Donald Trump as you can get without being a blood relative. He relies on her. He adores on her -- adores her. It is mutual. And they've been together since it was just basically them and nobody think -- taking them seriously. And the fact that one of the ex-wives went on CNN, somebody who says that she was abused by Rob Porter, saying that she is -- based on his pattern, she is convinced that Hope Hicks would be a victim herself, and the fact that that, even when it is in such a personal way, not just about the guy, but about the woman involved, a woman involved here, is another reason why it's really striking that he didn't also see that perspective, at least in this case.

GREGORY: Right. No, that's a really good point. And it's also that, you know, there's nobody around who apparently can professionalize this operation. You know, we've heard friends of the president who say that the president likes to lead, you know, through a kind of chaos theory. It just -- it doesn't work. It's not to say he hasn't achieved certain results in terms of what he has tried to do as president. But this is a day after day of constantly undermining themselves and their effective and their credibility. It has -- it has real reverberations.

BLITZER: Yes, this statement from the president, which came as a surprise, is going to generate a lot a lot of commotion understandably so.

GREGORY: Right. On a day when he's trying to sell the budget.


BASH: Right.

GREGORY: And trying to sell that as a good idea.

BLITZER: There's a lot going on right now.

Dana, David, guys, thank you very much.

There's more breaking news, including more reaction from a Republican congressman on the president's remarks.

Also, an historic and extraordinary moment. The vice president of the United States sitting only a few feet away from Kim Jong-un's sister, the first in the North Korean dynasty to ever cross the border into South Korean. You're going to see what happened. We've got new information on the back story behind the seating chart.

Also, the former Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden with a few choice words for the president who wants a major military parade here in Washington. That and a lot more coming up.


[13:26:50] BLITZER: A truly extraordinary moment at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics Games in South Korea. Look at this. The sister of the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, and in the next row, a mere few feet away, the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence.

Let's go to our international correspondent, Will Ripley. He's joining us from Pyeongchang, in South Korea. Also joining us, our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott. She's traveling with the vice president. She's now in Seoul.

Will, first to you. Tell us more about this highly unusual scene.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: An unusual scene, an unusual day here in Pyeongchang, Wolf. You had the vice president arrive here with Fred Warm bier, the father of Otto Warm bier, who died six days after being released from North Korean custody. He met with North Korean defectors. He called it a totalitarian regime.

And then, at the Olympics, these figures, the North Korean delegation, Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, who flew in on his official jet today, along with the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam. They're there in the VIP box just one row and four seats away from each other. And, in fact, they would have been seated almost directly in front of each other, but the vice president actually switched seats to be a bit farther away from the North Korean delegation.

You know, obviously, the United States trying to encourage South Korea to distance itself from North Korea, but the North Koreans are putting on what the U.S. calls a charm offensive. They're trying to get closer. They're trying to use this opportunity, really almost as a diplomatic mission in the eyes of many to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

BLITZER: You know, Elise, the vice president, as we've been showing the pictures, only a few feet away from Kim Jong-un's younger sister. No sign of, what, even a handshake. No acknowledgment. No conversation. Nothing, right?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Listen, his aides are telling us, the vice president wasn't interested in pleasantries. You know, there was a lot of speculation that the vice president might meet with some members of the North Korean delegation. And all week, you know, the vice president was very coy. He said we'll see what happens. But all along he had said, if I do have a chance to talk to them, I'm going to deliver the same message I've been delivering all week, which is a very tough message, Wolf.

And the vice president said -- you know, didn't want -- he wanted to deny the North Koreans this propaganda victory. And that's why he went to Japan, met with the South Koreans, and that's why, knowing that this -- North Koreans were going to be in that box, he wanted to sit shoulder to shoulder with President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Abe to kind of show how steadfast that alliance is.

But he wasn't interested in shaking hands. He didn't take an opportunity to go meet the U.S. -- the North Korean delegation at a reception before the opening ceremony. And so I think both the North Koreans and the U.S. are kind of rebuffing South Korean President Moon's efforts to try and translate these Olympics into some wider dialogue. The vice president's aides said that, you know, if the North Korean delegation, if Kim Jong-un's sister came over and talked to him, he would have responded, but he wasn't going to make that overture.

[13:30:03] BLITZER: Elise Labott and Will Ripley. Guys, good reporting. Thank you very much. A major, major story unfolding in South Korea right now.