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Trump Defends Rob Porter, Show No Sympathy for Women; Kim Jong- Un's Sister Seated Behind Pence at Olympic Ceremony; Dozens of West Wing Employees without Permanent Security Clearances; Kim Jong-Un's Sister Steals Olympic Spotlight. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The vice president's aides said that 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.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Elise Labott and Will Ripley, guys, good reporting. Thanks very much.

A major, major story unfolding in South Korea right now.

There's more breaking news we're following here on CNN. The president commenting now for the first time on his former aide, the one accused of domestic abuse. President Trump defending Rob Porter, who has been fired, and does not even mention the alleged victims. Stand by. More on that when we come back.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news here in Washington. President Trump now speaking out about the departure of his ex-White House staff secretary, following some very serious allegations that he abused his two former wives and maybe an ex-girlfriend as well.

Here's what the president said in the Oval Office in response to reporters' questions only moments ago.



[13:35:04] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll 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. 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.



BLITZER: All right, let's get some reaction to this and other issues. Representative Francis Rooney, of Florida, Republican from Florida, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is joining us.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY, (R), FLORIDA: Thanks for having me on, Wolf.

BLITZER: What do you think of the president's statements?

ROONEY: Well, if the facts are as statement by the investigation, this is a serious matter. It's just one more public official found to be despicable and shaking the public's confidence and the people that are engaged by the people to help run the country.

BLITZER: I was surprised the president didn't use this opportunity -- he is the one who invited the press pool to come into the Oval Office knowing -- you know they were going to ask him about this. That he didn't condemn domestic violence, that he didn't say anything about the two ex-wives or the girlfriend who claimed that there was abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse. He simply seemed to defend his former White House staff secretary.

ROONEY: We need to get to the bottom of all the facts. If the facts had been presented by the investigators, then it's a really bad situation. One good thing, at least, the security clearance investigation process worked well and ferreted a lot of things out.

BLITZER: I'm not so sure it did work so well because he had temporary security clearances for more than a year. He was the one that would hand-classify documents to the president. All those documents would go through him, and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, and he would give those documents to the president. But early on, the FBI apparently determined, based on interviews with ex-wives and others, this guy was not going to get top-secret security -- permanent top- secret security clearances, but he was still left on the job for more than a year.

ROONEY: If they knew that, he shouldn't have been on the job.

BLITZER: For more than a year -- they interview the ex-wives. You get security clearances, you go to family members, friends, to neighbors, you talk to everyone, you see if there is a problem, because you're dealing with some of the most secret, confidential, classified information out there. It's not just him, apparently. There are a whole bunch of others, including the president's son-in- law, Jared Kushner, who also have not been given top-secret security clearances, permanent security clearances by the FBI.

ROONEY: I'm not sure this interim security clearance business is a very good idea at all. I know in the diplomatic world, you don't go to post until you're cleared.


ROONEY: Black and white.

BLITZER: You have experience in that area, so you know. It's not just them. There were apparently a whole bunch of others who got what they call interim clearances, but it's not the permanent clearances. And certainly, if you're dealing with the most sensitive information, you want to make sure that that person, man or woman, has the permanent top-secret security clearances and, potentially, couldn't be subject to blackmail from an enemy.

ROONEY: That's a big part of what the questions are all about, to make sure you can't be suborned and undermined because of past actions that you've taken, like compromising like what's alleged here.

BLITZER: The problem here is that, apparently, the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, he knew the FBI wasn't going to give him the clearances. The White House counsel, Don McGahn, who is the top lawyer at the White House, he was told by the FBI there is a problem, he's not getting these security clearances, it's going to drag on. But they let him stay on that job. They clearly liked him. And maybe, professionally, he was doing a solid job. But there was this other issue that was preventing the FBI from saying to the White House, you know what, he's going to get clearances.

ROONEY: I think that's a bit of a problem. It's like some of our congressmen who want to serve out the rest of their term having committed some fairly heinous acts. I just have problems with that.

BLITZER: If the president called you and said, what do you think we should do? Should he get rid of these individuals who allowed Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, to stay on the job, even though he wasn't getting permanent security clearances, even though there were these alleged incidents in his previous marriages?

ROONEY: I think they need to revisit the entire interim security clearance process. If we're going to have clearance, then get him clearance.

BLITZER: But should those individuals, like Don McGahn or John Kelly or others, who knew about this, should they pay the price and resign?

[13:39:57] ROONEY: I would have to think about that. From the little bit I read about it, it looks like Don did keep the process moving, sent him in to see Kelly, but Kelly didn't respond. And the main thing I think we need to find out is, are these facts true? Is it as bad as it might be?

BLITZER: Yes. Bad enough if the FBI refused to give him --

ROONEY: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- a security clearance. That in and of itself. While I have you, let's talk about North Korea. Did the vice president of the United States, from your perspective -- you've got a lot of diplomatic experience, foreign affairs experience -- did he miss an opportunity, even reaching out casually and going over to the younger sister of Kim Jong-Un and saying, you know what, this is a tense situation -- or forget about substance, just simply saying hello?

ROONEY: No, I don't think he did. I think the hard line, combined with some of Rex Tillerson's comments about no regime change and not taking over the peninsula, have been kind of a good cop/bad cop that's gotten us further than we've ever gotten with China. So any show of weakness or friendship would have aided and abetted North Korea's efforts to suborn South Korea with the Olympics.

BLITZER: So you think this is good cop/bad cop. South Koreans, for example, President Moon, he's being very nice. They're going to have lunch in a few hours in Seoul. This is the first time that someone from the dynasty has been to South Korea from North Korea. So you think he's a good cop, as far as he's concerned, but the tough rhetoric coming from the White House is forcing the North Koreans into a more positive direction? Is that what I'm hearing?

ROONEY: As you know, Moon has said a few problematic things since he came into office, as far as the THAAD system and things like that. I think it's good for Moon to hear that our hard line is our hard line. We want to see a denuclearize North Korea.

BLITZER: But the fact that they're getting such a warm reception, the North Korean delegation, led by the younger sister of Kim Jong-Un, in South Korea, that's pretty significant.

ROONEY: It's going to be interesting to see how much of this is just a play and what North Korea does after the Olympics are over.

BLITZER: What do you think is going to happen?

ROONEY: I think they'll go back to being North Korea.

BLITZER: You don't think this is ping-pong diplomacy, U.S./China moment that could potentially change the discourse on the Korean peninsula? Because as you know, the North Korean regime, they've got nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and sooner rather than later, those missiles are, potentially, going to be able get anywhere in the United States.

ROONEY: I don't think diplomatically we're at the point now -- China talks to Nixon -- in rapprochement to happen. I think South Korea needs to think long and hard about its allies to the east and across the pond and protect it.

BLITZER: So this is still a very, very critical moment.

Congressman Rooney, thanks very much for joining us.

ROONEY: Thanks for having me on. BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

Coming up, the White House refusing to explain why ex-aide Rob Porter was allowed to handle sensitive classified information while not on a permanent security clearance.

And the Dow -- look at this -- plunging once again. Down nearly 500 points today. What's behind this two-week-long freefall?


[13:47:14] BLITZER: Moments ago, in the Oval Office over at the White House, President Trump told reporters he was sad when he learned that his former staffer, Rob Porter, allegedly abused two of his ex- wives. The president also said he hopes Porter has a great career ahead of him. But he didn't express sadness or sympathy for the women.

The president's comments come just as we learn that Porter was just one of many White House officials working without permanent security clearances. According to the "Washington Post," dozens, yes, dozens of West Wing employees have yet to obtain permanent security clearances. Instead, they're handling sensitive information, very often very sensitive information, with interim or temporary approvals.

According to "Politico," the FBI has informed the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, that it plans to deny multiple aides permanent clearance for a variety of background reasons. Rob Porter, by the way, was one of those who was denied permanent clearances.

I want to bring in CNN law enforcement analyst, Josh Campbell. He's a former FBI supervisor special agent. He resigned from the bureau last week in order to speak freely about some of attacks going out against the FBI.

It is pretty extraordinary that there are so many White House officials who have access to classified information but are denied permanent security clearances.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It certainly raises a lot of questions. Let's remember that the interim security clearance is granted for a particular reason, and that's to allow someone to begin working on day one while the full investigation continues. It's not unusual for an FBI background investigation to take up to a year, but we have to keep in mind the longer that investigation goes, it's reasonable to assume that either means there were issues trying to be mitigated or perhaps you're dealing with someone whose background is so complex, perhaps financial dealings, foreign travel, that kind of thing that would take a long time to resolve.

BLITZER: When you have a senior official, like Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, whose job is to present documents, classified documents, to the president of the United States, and he's yet to get those permanent clearances, that's a pretty powerful message the FBI is sending the White House. CAMPBELL: It is. One thing I want people to keep in mind is that

someone in his position as staff secretary doesn't just ferry documents. He also has to read them, right? A person in his position would have to determine whether there are coordination gaps or other issues the president should resolve, so he's actually diving into this information. It's someone you would want to have clearance, someone who has gone through that process. I think the issue we're seeing here is that the interim security process is being used as a long-term solution to a problem that it was not meant to be.

[13:49:53] BLITZER: There are a lot of White House officials, including the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who have yet to get permanent clearances, even though they're working on very sensitive diplomatic, national security-related issues.

We know there are various degrees of classified information. There's confidential, sensitive. There's secret, top secret. There's SCI, sensitive, compartmented information, and even higher-eyes-only kinds of documents. When the president gets, for example, a presidential daily brief written -- I don't know if he's going to read it or not read it. There's a report out in the "Washington Post" that he doesn't read those -- but it would be the staff secretary who would present a document like that from the president, presidential daily brief. What is the classification of that?

CAMPBELL: It would depend on the information that's in it on a given day. That is the most highly classified documents in the U.S. government. It goes to the commander-in-chief, the CEO of the intelligence community. But also not only the president's daily brief but all the multitude of documents that come to the president's desk every single day has to pass through that staff secretary.

BLITZER: But that presidential brief would be SCI, if it has sensitive information about North Korea or China, sensitive information. That sensitive, compartmented information, with someone with intermittent temporary clearances be allowed to look at that?

CAMPBELL: That's the issue that we're facing, right? We don't know what access that person has or what they're seeing on a daily basis.

One thing I want to point out also is that it's not the FBI that makes the decision whether or not they get a clearance. They don't even make the recommendation. That's why the political reporting is a little bit puzzling. It says that FBI is recommending against clearances.

BLITZER: But if they're not giving the clearances, in effect, they're recommending against the clearances.

CAMPBELL: Well, but the ultimate decision is up to the White House. I imagine what happens is, speculation on my part, is that perhaps you have a White House that you have people that weren't in government in a lot of different positions. They may have asked the FBI, well, what do you think about this? I can imagine FBI agents saying, well, this person is not someone we would hire. That kind of feedback. But it's not an official recommendation. At the end of the day, it's up to the White House to either grant the clearance of not. And if they're not going to grant a clearance, then they're relying on these interim clearances, which is potentially troubling.

BLITZER: Very troubling.

All right, Josh, thanks very much. Josh Campbell helping us better appreciate the sensitivity of all of this.

We'll have much more on the president's remarks, defending his ex- staffer who resigned amid allegations of domestic abuse. What he said and who he didn't mention in those remarks.

Plus, the Olympics are now underway. But all eyes are on Kim Jong- Un's younger sister. Is North Korea stealing the show?


BLITZER: The 2018 Winter Olympic games are officially under way in South Korea. But it's North Korea's actions right now that continue to make headlines.

Let's discuss this and more with my next guest, Tom Donilon. He served as the national security advisor to President Obama.

Tom, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: North Korea, it's pretty fascinating what's going on right now. The younger sister of Kim Jong-Un is there. They were together with -- she was there, only a few feet away from the vice president, Mike Pence. He didn't reach out, she didn't reach out. Was that a missed opportunity?

[13:55:01] DONILON: I don't think it was a missed opportunity, no. The North Korean -- by the vice president. I think North Korea has a clear set of goals. They're trying to split the alliance and head off additional sanctions and reduce the sanctions already on them. This came about from a New Year's Day speech that Kim Jong-Un, the head of North Korea, gave, offering to come to talks and come to the Olympics. It's an effort, again, to get out from under sanctions at this point and to normalize the view of North Korea in the eyes of the world community. The truth is, of course, we have to see what transpires after this. The question presented is, will all this -- it's fine to reduce tensions. Will this result in or translate into serious results about resolving the nuclear threat? That's the question.

BLITZER: Let me play a clip. This is only a month or so ago. President Trump was open to having a dialogue, a direct dialogue with Kim Jong-Un. Listen to this.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you willing to engage in talks with Kim Jong-Un right now?

TRUMP: Sure. I'm always willing to talk.


TRUMP: Very firm. But absolutely, I would do that. No problem with that at all.


BLITZER: It was hard to understand, but he said, sure, I've always believed in talking, absolutely, I would do that, I don't have a problem with that at all.

But the vice president, apparently, had a problem talking with the younger sister of Kim Jong-Un.

DONILON: Yes, but it has to be set up right. I oversaw the pressure campaign on Iran for almost five years, and that pressure campaign ended up being successful in bringing the Iranians to the table. But there has to be a path. We should continue our maximum pressure campaign, which the vice president said he was going to do the other day. But you also have to present a path to negotiations. There needs to be a way for them to come to the table. I think that diplomacy move is coming, right? But after the good feelings of the Olympics here, I think we'll go back to higher tensions. We'll resume our military exercises. They're likely to resume their testing. We have a couple more cycles here, I think, before we get serious talks.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the scandal at the White House. You were the national security adviser. Apparently, dozens of White House officials still don't have their security clearances. They're working on the basis of these interim and temporary clearances. That's pretty extraordinary.

DONILON: It's a serious management issue, that's for sure. I think a lot of this has roots in the transition. You had --

BLITZER: What do you mean by that?

DONILON: You had kind of a chaotic transition in government

BLITZER: From the Obama -

DONILON: From the Obama administration to the Trump administration, as you know. And we've had an unprecedented number, a percentage of senior White House people leave as a result of different issues. I think there wasn't a normal, appropriate, intensive vetting coming in, and you pay a price for that going forward. Second, you normally would pay -- give priority to the assistants of the president who handle the most sensitive information.

BLITZER: That would be a top priority of the FBI to get these guys cleared.

DONILON: Absolutely. And they understand that, so. And they will bring forward issues. It's an unusual circumstance to have this many senior people without clearances.

BLITZER: You were President Obama's national security adviser. I assume you worked closely with the White House staff secretary and the White House chief of staff?

DONILON: Yes, I did.

BLITZER: Did the White House staff secretary, when you were there, have interim, temporary clearances?

DONILON: I wasn't really with the clearance security --


BLITZER: You assume.

DONILON: You certainly assumed that anyone handling information in the White House --


BLITZER: Someone delivering the presidential daily brief to the president, you assume, had security clearances.

DONILON: You would assume the person who was handling information had the ability and the appropriate clearances that allowed him or her to handle that information.

BLITZER: So, what's your bottom line assessment with the scandal that's unfolding now at the White House? Apparently, top officials, including White House chief of staff, John Kelly, White House counsel, Don McGahn, they've known for a long time that there was a problem with the staff secretary, the allegations of abuse of two ex-wives.

DONILON: That should have come to his supervisor, who is the chief of staff, and it should have been dealt with. If I were the chief of staff at the White House today, I think the appropriate way to go forward here is to do a priority review today of the security clearances that key people in the White House have, to work with the FBI to see if there are any issues, and to resolve them, and to get on board a staff that has the appropriate protections, the appropriate security clearances, and are free from anything like being vulnerable to blackmail.

BLITZER: Do you know John Kelly at all?

DONILON: I worked with General Kelly during the course of the --


BLITZER: Is he up to the job based on what you know?


BLITZER: It looks like he made some major blunder. DONILON: He's a fine, a very fine military commander. But the White

House -- the White House chief of staff job is a multi-faceted job. It's an exceedingly difficult job. It has all kinds of aspects to it, including a number of political and serious management challenges. You know?

BLITZER: Even if you're a four-star general, it doesn't necessarily mean you're qualified to do all of that.

DONILON: Well, it's a challenging job. It's especially challenging working, frankly, with a president who doesn't approach the job in the ways that other presidents have.

BLITZER: That's a fair point.

Tom Donilon, thanks very much for joining us.

DONILON: Thank you.

BLITZER: That's it me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

In the meantime, the news continues right now.