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White House Struggles to Get Story Straight on Abuse Scandal; WAPO: Pence Says U.S. Ready To Talk With North Korea; Source: Pence Trip A "Missed Opportunity" For North Korea Diplomacy. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 09:00   ET



[09:00:16] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

Swirling controversies this morning surrounding the White House concerning the deficit and infrastructure. Now not the budget deficit and national infrastructure, though those will both come up today. No, we're talking about a moral deficit and crumbling systems of trust within the White House itself.

The president has not, and as far as we can tell, will not publicly speak out against two White House staffers accused of domestic abuse. The president has not and as far as we can tell will not offer any empathy to the women involved here. The president has not and as far as we can tell will not fire his Chief of Staff John Kelly who it seems knew about the allegations of abuse for some time yet did nothing.

This despite the fact that White House staffers are freely contradicting the Kelly timeline of events and pointing fingers every which way.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House this morning with some new developments here.

Kaitlan, you describe a sense of just confusion.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, John. It's been six days since Rob Porter resigned and there is still no consistent explanation from the White House over who knew what and when, and now we're also learning that there are questions being raised by the president's handling of all of this and his response to this by people who work inside of the White House because we're told by staffers that the president has been critical of Rob Porter privately, calling him, quote, "a sick puppy."

But those aides are wondering why the president has not made that private -- those private feelings public because as you know on Friday in the Oval Office the president said that Rob Porter had maintained his innocence, said that Rob Porter was a great employee when he was here at the White House, and then on Twitter on Saturday, the president was complaining that mere allegations can destroy peoples' lives.

So people inside the White House are even wondering how the president's truly feels about this, where he really stands on this issue. If he's offering conflicting stances in private and in public.

Now all of that is going on as there's a lot of frustration toward the Chief of Staff John Kelly and how he has handled this situation and, though, there were rumors that the president was looking for replacement several top aides were on television yesterday maintaining that the president has confidence in his chief of staff but also confidence in his communications director Hope Hicks who, as you know, John, was romantically involved with Rob Porter.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House describing this baffling sense of confusion there. Why is the president saying one thing publicly, another privately?

Thanks, Kaitlan.

Let's get more on this. Joining me now is CNN political analyst Josh Dawsey.

Josh, I want to start with you on John Kelly if I can, the chief of staff. You've been reporting this from the very beginning and you note one of the most remarkable developments here is that White House staffers are increasing happy to tell reporters that they do not think that General Kelly tells the truth. Explain.

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, General Kelly has had quite a contentious role here and then in a Friday morning meeting he tried to convince staffers that within 40 minutes of learning of the developments with Rob Porter that he quickly took action and swiftly terminated him.

Staffers just did not think that was so. Tuesday night the general put out a statement praising Rob Porter effusively, one might said. Wednesday the White House continued to maintain that there was support for Rob Porter. He had chosen to resign. He could leave whenever he wanted essentially. And then kind of as the backlash grew, as people started piecing together a timeline to realize, hey, the White House actually knew about this for months and months and months, and nothing was done.

And, you know, the pictures emerged, there became a sense, hey, we've got to get ahead of this and all of a sudden John Kelly started putting out a narrative he was fired immediately, he was taken out of the building. But White House staffers just do not think that was the case.

BERMAN: And remarkable as you say that they're willing to tell you that, willing to tell you that they think the general is saying something that is simply not true. So that's General Kelly. The president is presenting another fascinating dynamic.

Our Kaitlan Collins just reporting, the "New York Times," Axios all saying that behind the scenes the president is criticizing Rob Porter, calling him a sick puppy, yet publicly going out of his way to defend this fired staffer. You suggest there might be a reason here. Why might the president be concerned with perhaps offending someone like Rob Porter?

DAWSEY: There are two dynamics at play here. One the president doesn't like to concede or give in as someone in his administration publicly, you know, was a bad character or was not representing him well. We've seen time and time again he has doubled down on his assertions. He also has gone to defend men, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Roy Moore in Alabama who have been accused of such behavior.

[09:05:01] Secondly, Rob Porter was not one of the marquee names in the White House. He wasn't a Steve Bannon or a Reince Priebus or a Kellyanne Conway. But he was someone who was in the Oval every single day. He brought all the papers to the president. He sometimes spent three, four hours with the president.

I mean, he knows a lot and you have an aide who has been publicly disgraced. He's out -- you know, out of the White House now and if you create an enemy, he could be a very powerful enemy. I have no reason to believe that Rob Porter, you know, would be an enemy. In fact he made positive comments about the president on the way out.

But, you know, publicly shaming him from the president of the United States could be a risky proposition when someone was in your inner circle. We've seen with Steve Bannon, he was in the inner circle and he created an incredible amount of mischief for the president when he went out and spoke in "Fire and Fury" and all the comments he's made.

And the president, you know, has a tendency to keep people close, even once he parts ways with them, for fear of, you know, they could be a problem for him.

BERMAN: You better be careful before you go criticizing a guy who was in the room an awful lot.

Josh Dawsey, one other thing I want to point out here. The Mooch, Anthony Scaramucci tweeting over the weekend someone cryptically, but maybe importantly. He says, "At what price power or how far will someone move and shake their principles to keep it? What kind of lies told in fear will be struck in the heart of colleagues? What is the level of dishonesty? Stay tuned."

What do you read here?

DAWSEY: I have zero idea what Anthony Scaramucci's tweets means. Anthony often tweets provocative and interesting things. I certainly follow his account.

You know, one thing about Anthony, he had a flameout last summer in the White House but the president still likes him. A lot of people in the president's orbit continue to like Anthony Scaramucci. And, you know, he's someone who has visibility into the White House. So what he is a harbinger of in that tweet I'm not exactly sure. But I did note it with interest as well.

BERMAN: All right. Josh Dawsey, thanks so much for being with us. I really appreciate it. Appreciate your reporting.

Joining me now is Errol Louis, CNN political commentator, and Molly Ball, a CNN political analyst.

Molly, let me play you Kellyanne Conway, what she told Jake Tapper this weekend about the president's having confidence in John Kelly. Listen to this.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT: I spoke to the president last night. I told him I'd be with you today and he said, please tell Jake that I have full faith in Chief of Staff John Kelly and that I'm not actively searching for replacements. He said I saw that all over the news today. I have faith in him, and he does.


BERMAN: All right. I have full faith in John Kelly.

Well, Molly, this is almost a one year anniversary of Kellyanne Conway's saying this about Michael Flynn. Listen.


CONWAY: Yes, General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president.


BERMAN: All right. As we know, Michael Flynn resigned or was fired like two hours after Kellyanne Conway said just that so should John Kelly be packing his bags right now because, you know, Kellyanne Conway is out saying the president has full confidence in him?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. I mean, I don't think that Kellyanne Conway is sort of the angel of death in this situation. I think in the Flynn matter she may have been misinformed or out of the loop. But both of these instances the problem, if you're, say, John Kelly, or the American people watching this is that Trump has confidence in someone until he doesn't and his mood can change on a dime and he makes decisions often very spontaneously, very spur of the moment.

She says he's not actively looking for a replacement but there's a whole lot of other possibilities including idly, you know, bandying about ideas for replacements which we have heard that he is doing. So, you know, if I were Kelly, I would not take that as a message that he can rest easy. I think he's still got to be walking on eggshells to some extent given the chaos inside the White House and given all of the whispers and given all of the reporting where we're still trying to find out sort of where the buck stops in this White House and who knew what and when.

BERMAN: And walking on eggshells, Errol, because there are staffers in the White House telling all kinds of news organizations that the general's lying.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's interesting. That in some ways it's the most startling aspect of all of this is that you've got somebody who's supposed to -- who was supposed to come in, stop the leaks, get some message discipline, stop people from talking to the media constantly and it seems that people are talking to the media constantly.

It seems that people are not even shy about contradicting something he very explicitly tried to sort of put out as a message which is that the minute I heard about it, 40 minutes later the guy was gone and people are just openly saying well, that's just not what happened. That leaves, of course, Kelly I think in a very difficult position.


LOUIS: If his main usefulness to the president was to tamp down leaks, to stop the administration from looking chaotic and embarrassed, he has failed to do that on both accounts.

BERMAN: I will say this is the second time, apparently, that General Kelly has said something provably false. If you remember, Frederica Wilson, you know, General Kelly said she said something at the dedication of an FBI building, when you look at the tape, frankly, she just didn't say.

Molly Ball, to the president now who really is the central figure here and has chosen to make himself the central figure here by speaking out publicly in support of Rob Porter, speaking out publicly in defense of accused domestic abusers frankly and it's notable. If you look at the record here of statements that the president's made defending men accused of domestic abuse.

[09:10:01] Look at this. You know, Rob Porter, he says he's innocent. On Roy Moore accused of, you know, molesting teenagers, he totally denies it. Bill O'Reilly, he's a good person. Roger Ailes, he's helped his accusers. Corey Lewandowski, his accuser made up the allegations, and of course of the women who have accusations against him, he calls them horrible, horrible liars here.

You know, it's an interesting decision for a president to sort of all but declare himself the champion of people accused of abuse.

BALL: Well, he did go after one man that I can remember and that was Al Franken. But in that case his rationale was that Franken had admitted to the behavior in question.

Look, this is another instance where, you know, I think Josh laid out very convincingly in the last segment what Trump's thinking may be, what Trump's reasoning may be that he wants to keep this guy in his good graces by saying nice things publicly, while privately saying what he really thinks.

But this is -- that rational is all about Trump and if you're a Republican who's on the ballot in 2018, which does not include Donald Trump, you're looking at these comments and going, all right, we already had a big problem on our hands with women voters and then -- and all Trump is doing is digging deeper at the time of the Me Too Movement, at the time when this issue is so much in the spotlight.

For the purposes of, you know, Republicans running campaigns, all he had to do was not say anything.

BERMAN: Right.

BALL: And they could maybe try to distance themselves from this scandal but by making this assertive statement, you know, he really underscores the perception that, you know, he believes the words of men and he doesn't believe the accusations of women.

BERMAN: You could almost have seen the opposite being the more reasonable and politically astute if he had private doubts about Rob Porter he could voice those behind the scenes. But publicly you would come out and say, you know, my heart goes out to the women involved here. And we have to take these accusations seriously. He did the exact opposite which is stunning.

Errol, how are you celebrating Infrastructure Week? I asked that facetiously here but this is -- the president has been tweeting about it this morning. We are getting a look at his proposal. He wants to spend $200 billion in federal money, doesn't say how, to spur investment here.

Is this the type of thing that really at this point is just motion and activity or do the president's proposals now, will they go anywhere?

LOUIS: It doesn't look like it's going to do the main thing it was supposed to do which was create some bipartisan common ground that Democratic mayors and Democratic governors would sort of come along, work with the White House, maybe take some of the edge off some of the political battling that's paralyzing the country in many respects and provide something for the people.

That's what it was supposed to be. It doesn't look like that's necessarily going to happen. In part because of the way the plan is structured which is really quite partisan in some ways if you want to call it that. It's very much tilted toward private sector involvement in a way that a lot of Democratic governors and mayors are just not going to accept. Really all the way down to the county level.

At the same time, he's got all of this other stuff going on that will make it impossible I think -- nearly impossible -- for Democrats to say we're going to give him a win on this even though it will help all of us because the fight for the House in 2018 is going to be the all- consuming battle in Washington.

BERMAN: All right. Errol Louis, Molly Ball, thanks so much for being with us. We will find a way to celebrate Infrastructure Week over the next few days with both of you. So thank you for that.

A major shift on North Korea. The vice president saying that the United States is ready to talk to the regime without any preconditions. A fascinating interview. We'll dissect that coming up.

Plus, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg says me, too. The Supreme Court justice talks to our very own Poppy Harlow about her story and whether she thinks Congress is doing enough. Here's a spoiler alert, not quite.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: New this morning, Vice President Pence suggesting that the United States could sit down with North Korea without preconditions. So, does an interview in "The Washington Post" signal an entirely new posture toward approaching the regime?

This as a North Korean diplomatic source calls Vice President Mike Pence's trip a, quote, "missed opportunity," saying, he, quote, "He took the low road" instead of looking for a diplomatic opening.

Our Will Ripley live for us in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Will, what are you hearing?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm hearing from North -- sources very close to North Korea, John, that they are quite skeptical of the comments that Vice President Pence gave to the "The Washington Post" saying, essentially that it's another example of mixed messaging from the Trump administration.

Vice President Pence was on the ground here. He skipped out on events that featured the North Korean high-profile delegation including Jim Yong-un's sister, Kim Yo-Jong, and instead he did other things, he met with North Korean defectors.

He brought with him as his official guest, Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier. He blasted the regime repeatedly in his public comments and perhaps most controversially and what the North Korean sources are calling undignified he chose to sit when the unified Korea team came out during the opening ceremonies.

He didn't applaud. There was never any sort of offer the handshake from either side and the sources have said that they felt that the vice president's behavior was unbecoming of a super power.

They said instead of asking like the big brother of the United States, he just took the low road. When he was flying back on Air Force II, he told Josh Rogin, that in fact he would be willing, the United States would be willing to speak with the United States without preconditions.

Apparently, the United States meaning Mike Pence had some discussions with South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in and they basically agreed that Moon Jae-in wants to engage with the North Koreans, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the North Korean leader invited the vice president on behalf of her brother to visit North Korea at some point later this year. We don't know when that visit is going to take place. The U.S. would have a hard time endorsing that since they've been telling the South Koreas to basically cut off North Korea completely.

Now Vice President Pence is saying this, OK, you can go and talk with the North Koreans, that's fine as long as South Korea continues to support this policy of maximum pressure, upping the sanctions and most importantly the United States doesn't want any money paid under the table to North Koreans for this summit to happen.

Because there have been previous summits, John, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid from South Korea to North Korea under the table. No money is going to be exchanged this time around. The United States is insisting talks are only going to be talks unless North Korea agrees to take concrete action to denuclearize.

[09:20:09] BERMAN: All right. Will Ripley for us in South Korea. Will, thanks so much.

All of this is happening as questions continue to swirl around the Olympic maneuvering of Kim Jong-un's sister. Is this a charm offensive or really just craven propaganda from a brutal regime?

Joining me now is Bill Richardson, former ambassador to the United Nations, former governor of New Mexico. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us. Let's leave aside the performance art happening at the Olympics for just a moment and talk about the interview that Mike Pence, the vice president gave to our Josh Rogin on the way home.

Where he says that the United States would be willing to sit down with North Korea with no preconditions which is to say, North Korea doesn't have to give up its nuclear program to sit down and talk. We'll talk right now was the message. What do you make of that?

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: Well, if it's correct it's a breakthrough because our previous position was there have to be concessions on the nuclear side before we sit down with North Korea. What the policy is shift by the administration, it's a concession that basically says, we are ready to talk without preconditions.

In other words, talks about talks. So, this is positive. This is a good step. I don't mind calling it a concession on the part of the United States. Three factors could derail this.

One is if the administration and South Korea after the Olympics are over conduct some kind of military exercises. Secondly, if there is a rejection by North Korea. I don't think so because North Korea has been ready to sit down without any preconditions as long as they don't have to take steps to denuclearize.

So, this is a hopeful sign. It's the vice president. The last point is if the administration, if the president doesn't tweet and undermines his vice president the way he did the secretary of state when the secretary of state was correctly trying to pursue the same goal. BERMAN: The flip side of this, though, is that the vice president made clear that North Korea would not get anything for just sitting down. In the past obviously, South Korea has given aide, money, things like that as a precondition in its own way to these negotiations. This time the vice president doesn't want North Korea getting anything.

RICHARDSON: That's right. I think the administration was put in a box by South Korea, by these mutual gestures of good will at the Olympics by the North and the South. So, I think the administration had no choice. They couldn't reject the two presidents meeting after an invitation from North Korea or South Korea.

So, I think they jumped the board. The situation which in the end could prove to be positive because then we can start talking about issues like denuclearization. I think the South Korean president has to be careful because he doesn't want to upset and get too far ahead of the administration, his main ally.

And secondly, as Will Ripley pointed out, North Koreans have in the last two summits with South Korean presidents, they extracted huge payments, aide, investment and they gave nothing in return. So, you got to watch the North Koreans that they don't get away with nothing just the propaganda coup, which would be one with the summit of the two presidents.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the theaters of the Olympics. The sister of Kim Jong-un was smiling and waving. The vice president did not meet with her or shake her hand in any way. Was he wrong not to shake the hand of this woman who's the sister of a brutal dictator, a mass murderer, starves his own people? Should he have done some outreach there?

RICHARDSON: No. I've been in diplomacy and there have been instances where I was told you're going to see Fidel Castro, but because we have no relations you have to avoid him. You can't do a handshake.

I think the vice president was following protocol, maybe a little side glance would have helped, a little smile, which President Obama used to do very skillfully, but I think here is where Kim Jong-un by sending his sister it's a message that you know we're ready maybe to do business.

This is somebody in the leadership. It's my flesh and blood and I think the orchestration of the Olympic games, once again, sports being an arbiter of opening up diplomacy like in the U.S.-China relationship, the ping-pong diplomacy.

I always think this soft power may be getting back the bodies, the remains of our soldiers from North Korea. Soft power, human rights family reunification. I think here's where North and South can make some progress on the human soft power side that has been lacking.

[09:25:03] BERMAN: Ambassador, Governor, Secretary, man of many titles, thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate it.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

BERMAN: So, should we get ready to rally here? The opening bell just moments away. A lot of green.


BERMAN: All right. The opening bell just 20 seconds away. Should we be getting ready for a rally? CNN chief business correspondent, Christine Romans with me now.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Friday seems so long ago, doesn't it to you? I mean, Friday seems like a lifetime ago, but for the markets they're picking up exactly where they left off on Friday and that is enthusiasm.

Last week was a terrible week. We still have the S&P 500 down 8.8 percent from its record hit on January 26th, and this morning, it looks as though investors want to buy stocks. Maybe a couple of hundred points here higher on the Dow Jones --