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CNN: WH Aides Baffled by Trump Comments on Porter; Michelle Obama delivers Remarks at Portrait Unveiling. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Even more so because it is members of his own team, the president's own team now asking that question. They're telling CNN they're deeply confused about how the president has handled the allegations of domestic abuse against former White House staffer Rob Porter. We might hear more from the president very shortly as he unveils his next budget and infrastructure plan. It is infrastructure week after all.

Plus, moments from now, a rare Washington, D.C. appearance from former President Obama along with former first lady Michelle Obama. Here are some live pictures right there. They're attending the formal unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian. We'll take you there live as it happens.

Let's start, though, with the current administration, the sense of confusion as reported by our very own CNN's Kaitlan Collins who is there. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. That's right, John. It has been six days since Rob Porter first resigned. There has been a myriad of questions over the White House's handling of this in which officials knew about these allegations long before they became public. But now we're also getting a lot of questions as to where the president truly stands on this issue because if you look at his public statements, he's been very dismissive of these allegations and defensive of Rob Porter. But aides say the president is actually quite critical of Rob Porter in private, calling him a sick puppy. But now aides are wondering why there are those two different conflicting stances from the president, one in public, and one in private. And aides are telling me that they're wondering where the president truly stands on this issue. And if so he's critical of Porter in private, why is he not making that sentiment made public in his tweets and in his remarks?

So those questions are surfacing, those questions also about how the Chief of Staff John Kelly handled all of this, even though several top aides were on television yesterday defending him, and saying the president has confidence in not only him, but also the Communications Director Hope Hicks, who is romantically involved with Porter, so all of these questions really engulfing the White House here as we stretch into a new week, John. And we're going to see the president here in the next hour and we'll be watching to see if he has anything new to say about Rob Porter and these disturbing allegations. BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House. Again, we will hear from the president in just a bit. We'll bring you there live when it happens.

Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia. Congressman, thank you for being with us.

Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser for the president. She was on television with CNN yesterday. And this is how she justifies what happened inside the White House when it comes to Rob Porter. Let's listen.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: I think people should look at the result as to how this is handled. What is the result? The result is that one week ago Rob Porter was a top aide to President Trump and today he's out of the White House.


BERMAN: Rob Porter, he's gone. Case closed. Is that the end of the story for you?

REP. DON BEYER (D), VIRGINIA: No, it can't be. I mean, we have to be concerned. The White House Counsel Don McGahn apparently knew about these allegations a year ago. John Kelly was informed by the counsel back in the fall when he inquired about the interim security clearance. It is really amazing that they let this go on for so very long. And it is also amazing that both Hope Hicks and Chief of Staff Kelly were very much defending Rob Porter at the very beginning.

BERMAN: Amazing how and why and to what end. Amazing from a societal standpoint that they knew someone accused of domestic abuse was in there or amazing because of security concerns over the fact that Rob Porter could not and apparently was never going to get full security clearance.

BEYER: Was never going to get. And it raises all the other people that are there with interim security clearances including Jared Kushner. But yes, on both sides, how can you tolerate having somebody there with these obvious serious domestic abuse allegations and also how do you give him access to top secret information, right there at the right hand of the president.

BERMAN: We're hearing from the White House this morning, our reporter Kaitlan Collins, saying the president has been calling Rob Porter a sick puppy behind closed doors today. You know, condemning him in his actions behind closed doors, yet publicly saying something different. How do you explain that?

BEYER: There is a lot of inconsistencies but one of the things that probably has been most concerning was the president's very defensive tweets over the weekend about due process and how just because you've been accused doesn't mean you're guilty, which is true. But when you get this preponderance of evidence, whether it is a Senate candidate in Alabama or a secretary to the president, you have to take them seriously.

BERMAN: Should John Kelly go, the chief of staff? Should the president fire John Kelly?

BEYER: I think so. If you were my chief of staff, I would let him go. When you add up all the other things, calling the Dreamers lazy, false allegations about Congressman Frederica Wilson, civil war failure to compromise, there are just too many bad things out there that he's been saying and doing. But this I think is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

BERMAN: Do you see John Kelly though as someone who has brought order to the White House? I mean, people look at Kelly as someone who changed the way at least the systems work inside.

BEYER: Yes. It is both. It is more orderly and yet it is still a White House in chaos. It may not be totally his fault. But I think we're seeing real character issues with John Kelly too, and certainly a lack of judgment keeping Rob Porter close to we are was.

[10:05:12] BERMAN: An infrastructure plan is being unveiled shortly, in fact. And again, we will hear from the president in just a few minutes. $1.5 trillion total, but really it is $200 billion in federal funding. Is this something where you think that Democrats should work with the White House on?

BEYER: Yes, although it is not real credible so far. The president promises to slash transit funding everywhere, which is incredibly important for our cities. And after we added 1.5 trillion minimum in the tax cut, and then blew it up again with the budget deal over the weekend. How are we really going to find any more money? How much more debt do we have to put the American people in? We have to come up with a credible revenue source to pay for infrastructure and that does seem something that the president is willing to do.

BERMAN: Gas tax, would you support a gas tax?

BEYER: Yes, I will, absolutely. I think the American people will too, because they'll be getting so much more back. Not just the infrastructure we need, but putting the people who most need jobs back to work too.

BERMAN: Immigration will get to the Senate floor tonight. Mitch McConnell promised an open debate and apparently this is going to happen. We do not know yet what this will look like. We do not yet really know what the first thing proposed and debated will be. What are you counting on from your Senate colleagues?

BEYER: My assumption is that what comes over from the Senate will probably be a reasonable compromise. You know, have to get 60 votes. And it will be something that most House Democrats and Republicans can live with. The fear is that Paul Ryan won't put the Senate bill on the floor. He's likely to put something much more punitive, something like the so-called Goodlatte Bill, which looks like it was written by Steven Miller. That's what we're likely to see. And I think that's one of the reasons why so many Democrats voted no on the funding bill last week, because we thought it was the only leverage we had to get a good immigration bill in the House.

BERMAN: But what could you -- could you accept some funding for the wall?

BEYER: Yes, I think so. I don't think -

BERMAN: $20 billion?

BEYER: I don't know what the number is, but I think Democrats are willing to compromise. They just don't want to see something that is so whole heartedly punitive on the immigration policy we've had the last 50 years.

BERMAN: Diversity lottery, could you accept changes to that?

BEYER: Changes, yes. Elimination, no. If you totally eliminate the diversity lottery, then people from the less affluent countries, especially I think sub-Saharan Africa are never going to have a chance to come to the United States.

BERMAN: Do you trust the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to negotiate a good deal on behalf of Democrats. And I'm asking because this has been an issue for House Democrats who have not liked the deals cut by Schumer on some of these issues?

BEYER: Yes. I do trust him. And I think you know the deal that he negotiated last week on the budget with the discretionary domestic spending was a very good deal for Democratic values. So, yes, I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. I certainly think that he's in a better position to get a moderate immigration bill than we are with this 240 to 190 ratio in the House.

BERMAN: We'll watch very closely what happens there tonight. Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia, thanks for being with us.

BEYER: Thank you, John, very much.

BERMAN: All right, happening right now, the Obamas, back on the public stage. You're looking at live pictures. This is the unveiling of their official portraits that will hang inside the national gallery.

CNN's Kate Bennett standing by with what we're seeing right now. Kate?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: So, John this is probably the most anticipated unveiling of presidential portraits and first lady portraits that we've had so far to date. The Obamas picked really contemporary artists to paint their portraits for former President Barack Obama's painting. He chose Kehinde Wiley who depicts mainly African-American men imposes of the old masters.

So, he juxtaposes contemporary culture with very formal sort of heroic poses. Here we're seeing Michelle Obama come to the stage. She selected the woman there in the glasses, Amy Sherald, Baltimore-based painter who's also famous for here depictions of African-Americans. Here comes the former President Barack Obama. So, clearly, not just - you know, we're anxious to see them, but the art world has really been very anxious to see these very different presidential portraits.

BERMAN: I think you bring up a great point here, Kate. And again, as we're watching this live unfold before our very eyes here, it is an interesting political moment because we just don't hear from the former president and first lady all that much, particularly not in Washington, D.C., just down the street from the White House, but artistically, this is fascinating. These are likely to be very different kinds of official portraits. It would be very interesting to see.

BENNETT: We're so used to seeing portraits that look life-like, right? Like the goal of portraits is to look exactly like the person. We saw that in George Bush. We saw that in the Clintons.

[10:10:02] And this is going to be very different. Kehinde Wiley paints with things sort of wallpaper backgrounds and bold colors. And Amy Sherald, paints her portraits - the skin of her - her subjects she paints in grayscale. She says it's to remove the color of her subjects that we see them just as the people they are. So, there is an underlying hint there of social justice as well. As you said, this is really going to be a very marked difference in these presidential portraits that will hang in the national portrait gallery here in Washington.

BERMAN: All right, Kate, stand by. What we're going to do here is we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll see these portraits for the very first time and we will also hear from the former president and former first lady. We don't hear from them much. This will be fascinating. Stick around.


BERMAN: We're looking at live pictures from the National Gallery of Art. That's the secretary of the Smithsonian, David Skorton. Behind him, people you might recognize. Former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama.

[10:15:03] This is the official unveiling of their official portraits that will hang in the National Gallery. We will see the portrait of Michelle Obama any second. And then both the former first lady and former president will speak, that unusual in and of itself, we don't hear from them much, particularly not in Washington so close to the White House. We will bring you there, the minute that happens. We're going to keep our eye on this throughout the morning. The portraits, by the way, also are fascinating from artistic perspective as well. The young artists who have painted these notable and different -- you know what, I think we're about to see the portrait. Let's take a look.


BERMAN: We will hear from Michelle Obama now.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning, everyone. Let's just start by saying, wow, again. Let me just take a minute. It is amazing. Wow.

How are you all doing? It is a pleasure and an honor to be here in this beautiful museum with all of you today.

Let me start, of course, by thanking Secretary Skorton and Kim Sajet for their remarks and for their outstanding leadership and everything they have done to support us, to support the arts over these many, many years. I also want to recognize all of our dear friends and colleagues and our team members and family who are here with us today, too many to mention. Joe and I know Jill's in traffic. Thank you. Thank you, all, for being here. We love you.

Hi mom. What's going on? What do you think? Pretty nice, isn't it?

I see so many people that I could thank, people who have been with us on this journey. We love you all. Thank you for taking the time.

I have to tell you that as I stand here today, with all of you, and look at this amazing portrait that will hang among so many iconic figures, I am a little overwhelmed to say the least. I have so many thoughts and feelings rolling around inside of me now. I am humbled. I am honored. I'm proud. But most of all I am so incredibly grateful to all the people who came before me in this journey, the folks who built the foundation upon which I stand.

As you may have guessed, I don't think there is anybody in my family who has ever had a portrait done, let alone a portrait that will be hanging in the National Gallery, at least as far as I know, mom. But all those folks who helped me be here today, they're with us physically and they are with us in spirit. I'm thinking about my grandparents, Rebecca and Purnell Shields, south side, as he is known now throughout the nation, LaVaughn and Fraser Robinson, Jr. They were all intelligent, highly capable men and women. They have the kind of talent and work ethic that usually destines people for greatness. But their dreams and aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin.

I'm, of course, thinking about my dad, Fraser Robinson III. Man who sacrificed everything to give me and my brother opportunities he never dreamed for himself. And, of course, I'm thinking about my mommy, Marian Robinson, who is sitting in the front row, supporting us like she has always done. Always putting herself last on her list so that he she could give me and Craig and our children everything that makes today possible.

[10:20:11] I'm also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them, hanging on the wall, of this great American institution. Yes.


And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls. And when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think, again, wow, wow, what an incredible journey we are on together in this country. We have come so far. And, yes, as we see today, we still have a lot more work to do, but we have every reason to be hopeful and proud. And I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to stand alongside my husband and play a very small part in that history and in that future. But I'm even more proud of the extraordinary woman and artist who made this portrait possible, Amy Sherald.


I have more to say about you, girl.

Now, Barack and I have the privilege of considering a number of outstanding portraitists and I want to thank Bill Allemann, Thelma Golden, Michael Smith, our team. We love you guys, I know you're out there, who guided us every step of the way. There you go. Of course I could see you guys. But thank you. They guided us through every step of the way, through this process. We never could have done this without you, because you not only know your craft and all these folks, but you know us intimately, you knew what we were looking for and what we wanted to say, so thank you, Three, The Dynamic Trio.

And with their help, we narrow down the field to a few key artists who Barack and I then interviewed. And each of these artists had to walk into the Oval Office, yikes, and I almost wanted to start off each conversation by apologizing for putting them through this process. I mean just to get this job they had to come to the White House, to the Oval Office, and get grilled by the president and first lady.

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

So it wasn't lost on us how unnerving this experience was for each and every one of them. And when Amy came in, and it was her turn, I have to admit that I was intrigued. I was intrigued before she walked into the room. I had seen her work and I was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter. So I was wondering who is this woman? And she is so cute too. And then she walked in, and she was fly and poised and I just wanted to stare at her for a minute. She had this lightness and freshness of personality. She was hip and cool in that totally expected, unexpected kind of way.

And within the first few sentences of our conversation, I knew she was the one for me and maybe it was the moment she came in and she looked at Barack and she aid, Mr. President, I'm really excited to be here, and I know I'm being considered for both portraits, she said, But Mrs. Obama, she physically turned to me, and she said, I'm really hoping that you and I can work together.


And after that, she and I, we started talking and Barack kind of faded into the wood work and, you know, there was an instant connection that kind of sister girl connection I had with this woman and that was true all the way through the process, which is a good thing, because when someone is doing your portrait, they spend hours staring at you. Yikes. It is very intimate, the experience. So you really have to trust the person and feel comfortable enough to let yourself go. And Amy made that possible for me. We had that connection.

[10:25:03] So today, I want to thank Amy for being willing to put herself through this process. Especially after it was leaked, I just felt for you, girl. You know, to have to do that, right? To paint a portrait of Michelle and Barack Obama is like cooking Thanksgiving dinner for strangers. Everybody has an idea of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to taste like. The dressing that you love is the dressing that you love. You don't want other stuff in it. And that's what it is like. People -- people know what they feel and think and how they see us. So Amy had to interpret that and do it under the spotlight. So I can only imagine that it's been a little stressful for her. But she has handled it with all with remarkable poise and grace, which I think tells you a lot about who she is.

She is obviously a woman of extraordinary talent. And it is thrilling to see her getting the recognition she deserves with all of the awards, the calls from museums and buyers lining up to purchase her work. But even more important, Amy is a woman of extraordinary character and strength. Her path has been strewn with obstacle after obstacle. She's faced life threatening medical conditions of her own. She has made tremendous sacrifices to care for the people she loves. She has endured the heart break of losing some of those that she has loved and all through it she kept going. All along she stayed faithful to her gifts. She refused to give up on what she had to offer to the world. And as a result, she is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation. It was a total joy.


It was a total joy to work with you, Amy. I am so pleased and honored and proud of you. So it is my honor to introduce Amy to all of you today, the woman who created this beautiful portrait, Amy Sherald.


BERMAN: You've been listening to Michelle Obama, the former first lady, at the unveiling of her first portrait. Her reaction was wow, wow, when she saw it. It is a fascinating beautiful work of art by the artist Amy Sherald. You're looking right there, who paints in gray tones when she has African-American subjects. She likes to say it is her subversive comment on race and she gets to include the viewer as well in that comment. Look at that right there.

Joining me now to talk about this and the news of the day, Matt Viser, Alice Stewart and Brian Fallon. Alice, you know first to you, Michelle Obama noted she's the first person in her family who's ever had a portrait that will hang in the National Gallery. I think all of us could say the same thing about that. She also noted the fact that young girls, particularly girls of color, can now go to the National Gallery, look up and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls there.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And that's a tremendous legacy for her to have. And one thing that I disagree with what she said, she said she had a small part in the success of this administration. She had a huge part in the success of this administration with her program she worked on herself, but also the support that she gave to the president was just tremendous. And I think it is phenomenal that they have someone to paint them, someone that they were comfortable with, someone that they knew would capture who they were.

I was involved in the portrait process for Governor Huckabee and Nancy Harris was the artist. She followed us around for quite some time and virtually moved to Little Rock to get the painting done and it is a very personal process. And it was great to hear Michelle Obama talk about how they were able to have this rapport, which really comes out in the portrait. It is really beautiful painting.

BERMAN: You know, Brian Fallon, like all of us, because we cover so much politics, I was listening very carefully to see if there was any subtle message that the former first lady would make there. I did pick up on one sentence and really one sentence only. She said, as we sit here today, we have a lot more work to do. She was saying. I wonder if in the context of what we're seeing in Washington today she was trying to send a message there.

BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't know, John. I think even if Hillary Clinton were president today, I think she might have the same observation because I think the Obamas throughout the eight years of the historic presidency were always well aware that as huge and historic a step as Barack Obama's election represented, the country still has a ways to go with tackling the problem of institutional racism. And so I think that it is always refreshing to see the Obamas out there. It is a reminder we don't need to live like this. We don't need to be part of this white knuckled resistance where every day we wake up to some new headache. And it is a reminder that we can have a president and first lady that we as a country, regardless of party are proud of and they carry themselves with grace and dignity -