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Medical Insurance Scandal; EPA Chief's Expensive Travel Bill; White House Firestorm. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Soon, the White House is set to hold its briefing. And for the third one in a row, officials will likely be questioned about what is going on in the wake of the resignation from Rob Porter. The accused wife abuser left his job as White House staff secretary nearly a week ago, and the firestorm over his exit is only intensifying, stoked by the president's own mixed messages about his former aide.

Several White House officials are confused over the president's conflicting take. Axios reports the president in private conversations called Porter -- quote -- "sick" and that the president believes the ex-wives' details that Porter emotionally and physically abused them.

But over the weekend, the president took to Twitter early Saturday morning to tweet this. "People's lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused. Life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as due process?" he asks.

Let's go straight to the White House to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Listen, there are all kinds of questions, including security clearances.


BALDWIN: These allegations kept Porter from getting a full security clearance. He had an interim one. And now we know dozens of others are in the same boat.

ACOSTA: That's right.

And, Brooke, over the weekend, officials here at the White House were on the Sunday talk shows saying, well, these security clearances take time.

And that's true. And, of course, it's probably not unheard of to have a White House official in previous administrations work with an interim security clearance. The point is, with Rob Porter, though, that security clearance process dredged up serious allegations, and they are allegations that were made aware to top officials, including the chief of staff, John Kelly.

And so they had this information in hand. They said they changed their mind essentially as to what to do with Rob Porter after that photograph of one of his accusers sporting a black eye came out, and that changed everything over here.

So I think it's just a no-brainer, Brooke, that at the White House briefing this afternoon that Sarah Sanders, who was off for a bit last week, is really going to be barraged with these questions, not only about the process that really led them down this dark path with Rob Porter, but also what the president is saying about all of this, because while there are these reports quoting anonymous sources, and there's no need to deny those reports or not believe those reports, but quoting anonymous sources saying the president had different feelings about this privately over the weekend.

The question is why on Friday was the president essentially defending Rob Porter and saying, well, he says he's innocent, we hope he has a wonderful career and we wish him well, and why was the president over the weekend tweeting that lives are being ruined by allegations?

It was hardly a MeToo moment for President Trump, and I suspect that these will be the questions that are going to come up at the briefing today. The other question, of course, is can this president, can this White House turn the corner?

They were trying to talk about their budget proposal today. Mick Mulvaney, the budget director, is supposed to talk about that later on this afternoon. There's also the president's infrastructure plan. But as you saw earlier today, as he was talking about infrastructure, the Rob Porter question came up. Here's what happened.


QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have a vetting problem?


ACOSTA: And so you couldn't really make it out all that well, Brooke, but it just goes to show you there's documented evidence, there's proof right there it's not just me who is always yelling questions at the president.

But this was another instance where the president, who wanted to be on message talk about infrastructure, talking about the budget, was instead taking questions about something that happened a week ago. And, by the way, it's something that happened that he really didn't help himself out with very much over the last several days, where he was defending this aide, Rob Porter, over and over and over again.

It just raises questions as to what they're doing from a messaging and communications standpoint behind the scenes here at the White House, Brooke. BALDWIN: Yes. We will look for you and we will take that briefing a

little later this hour.

Jim Acosta, thank you so much for now, our chief White House correspondent.

Let's bring in a panel and just have a bib old conversation, shall we?

I have with me journalist and women's rights advocate Anushay Hossain, who is a contributor opinion writer to us here at CNN political commentator Amanda Carpenter is back today, who is also former communications director for Senator Ted Cruz, and CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza.


Chris Cillizza, you're up to bat first, my friend, because we talked a lot Friday about those on-camera Trump remarks where he mentioned those women and their allegations, zilch, nada, not whatsoever.

And it's almost like Friday night the president goes to bed, wakes up, thinks, how can I make this worse? And then he tweets.


I saw some spin over the weekend. I think it was from Marc Short, the legislative affairs director, Brooke, who said, well, this -- or it might have been Mick Mulvaney from OMB, who said, well, this could have been about Steve Wynn.

The very fact that we're debating that is not a good thing. If the president wants to be clear about who it is, he should say who it is. It read to me like it was about Rob Porter.

And, yes, he has this very, I think, somewhat disturbing trend of if it is a man who he is either friends with or agrees with or agrees with him or is in the same party, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, others, Roy Moore, he tends to say, well, you know, he denies it, he strongly denies it, even in the face of a number of allegations in all of these cases that more than one allegation of either sexual assault, domestic abuse, physical or mental abuse.

But in the circumstances -- I went back and looked at this. In the circumstances when it relates to Democrats, which we have some recent examples of -- Al Franken was accused of forcibly groping and kissing women, John Conyers from Michigan of inappropriate conduct toward women -- Trump is much more willing to sort of say, you know, I'm proud of women for coming forward.

He put a statement like that out. So it's the definition of sort of situational ethics and I think more evidence, frankly, that this president does not view the job of president as to be sort of a broad apolitical, apartisan, nonpartisan leader on issues like this.

It's friends and allies and everyone else. And he just has two different standards of treating people. AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But if I could pick up

on something that Chris said...

BALDWIN: Go for it.

CARPENTER: ... it is notable that when these Republican men are accused of things, they deny it outright.

And I think the Trump administration uses their denials to avoid taking any responsibility. When the case of Al Franken did come up, you would see surrogates from the RNC come out and say, well, he admitted it. And when our guys are accused of things, they don't admit it, and then they just say they deserve due process.

There's like a script to this. And this is why I believe Trump publicly is defending Rob Porter, even if he admits there were problems behind the scenes, because he has to give his surrogates cover, because what happens when his surrogates of asked about Trump's behavior?


BALDWIN: I was about to say that opens a whole other can of worms, especially when Trump talks about it.


CARPENTER: Because they can never admit anything. And as long as you never admit wrongdoing, they can defend it.

BALDWIN: Yes, yes, yes.

Anushay, to you.

When you look at his tweet, you really have to look at this teeny little word mere used as an adjective to describe allegation, mere allegation.

Tell me if this is a mere allegation when you have two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend talking about this. You have the picture of the black eye. You have the fact that the FBI knew. Don McGahn, the White House counsel, knew, and his chief of staff knew. Is that a mere allegation to you?

CILLIZZA: Restraining order too, too, by the way, Brooke, restraining order and 911 calls.


BALDWIN: Go ahead.

ANUSHAY HOSSAIN, CNN.COM CONTRIBUTING OPINION WRITER: You know what, Brooke? No. It is never a mere allegation.

Violence against women -- we are at a point now this goes beyond partisan politics. Violence against women is a human rights issue, and I want to reiterate my call to GOP and Republican women that it is time to get out.

I feel like GOP women are trapped with their abuser, which is Trump. You guys have stood by him through pedophilia, through sexual harassment, through sexual assault.

CARPENTER: Not all of us.

HOSSAIN: Not all of you, but the majority.

And I want to say the majority of white women who voted for Trump, I want to say, enough is enough. We are at a pivotal moment in this country right now. The culture is shifting. This is a turning point for women's rights and for violence against women.

And you know what the president just made clear to us, not that we needed him to stipulate this, is that he doesn't back this movement, that a man's denial, a white man's denial, is worth more than a woman's word, than a woman's experience.

And I think -- I don't want to pull this card, but I think in this situation I have to. But, as a mother, what is the message that we are sending to little girls? What is the message that is coming from this White House? Why is it so complicated and difficult for this president to say, no, this was wrong, violence against women, domestic violence is wrong?

He can't even say it.

BALDWIN: Thank you.


CILLIZZA: Look, I think it's speaks to the sort of way in which all of the presidents -- I will speak to the modern era, because I'm not totally up on how much John Tyler defined the presidency and its moral beacon.

But I will tell you all modern presidents, Brooke, saw the job, whether it's George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush, they saw the job as sort of in part being a leader of the American people, taking the high road.



BALDWIN: Can I just say, I mean, duh?

CILLIZZA: Understanding that what you say matters.

HOSSAIN: Duh, but also, Chris, the concept of like empathy.

You know what's so funny, Brooke? You never see Donald Trump show any kind of empathy. We saw when Heather Heyer died in Charlottesville, an American citizen was killed from Nazi violence, no comment. Puerto Rico, throw paper towels at them. But the only time you really see like any kind of human emotion from

Trump is when he's standing up for serial abusers of women. You have got to believe him. He has denied it.

What is this? This is disgusting. And as a mother, I have to say that Kellyanne Conway, shame, shame on you for making the Sunday talk show rounds yesterday and trying to defend this. I don't know how these women look at their daughters in the face.

BALDWIN: You know, I do wonder about -- Amanda to you, again, just I wonder about the women in the West Wing. She's right. Kellyanne Conway, she did her job, she defended her boss, she defended her president.

But I have to wonder, in the quiet corners within the West Wing, if some of these women, Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, other women are like roll their eyes, or if they are frustrated at this man who publicly they have to defend and privately they're ashamed of?

CARPENTER: Yes, I mean, sure. I think we all speculate what's going on in the inner workings of the minds of those who work in the White House.

But, to be honest, I don't really care, because you go out in public, I'm going to take your word of what you say in public. And I sort of think we're missing the big story that the Rob Porter situation exposes, and that's the fact that many people in the White House, not just the chief of staff, not just the White House counsel, ignored security concerns to protect their guy.

Of course, that's really just concerning when it comes to violence against women, but there's a lot of other people, namely, Jared Kushner, in that White House who have potential conflicts of interest, who may be exposed to corruption, who are under investigation for the Russia situation.

And so...


BALDWIN: Let's just remind everyone, he doesn't have the clearance, and he's the one, as we read the reports over the weekend, it's not the president who's reading the intel briefings. It's his son-in-law.


So, I think we have to ask, if that many people in the White House were willing to ignore allegations of domestic violence, what else are they ignoring? And I think that's where we need to follow the story.

BALDWIN: You're right.

So, Chris, close us out on that point, because I think it's an excellent one on security clearance.

CILLIZZA: Yes. Look, two things that struck me, aside from the obvious, which is this

is not -- this is not a he said/she said. It's a he said/she said/she said/a former girlfriend of Porter said/the 911 call said/the restraining order said/the picture said. Right? So, that's one part.

But the other part is more processy, but no less important, the point that Amanda touches on, which is how -- this guy literally touched every piece of information and paper that went to President Trump, which means he touched stuff that was top-secret, he touched stuff that was classified.

John Kelly knew well in advance of it last week that his -- Porter's security clearance hadn't come through. Why was John Kelly not interested in finding out why? That's one.

Two, I still think it is -- this is, again, sort of political malpractice, but why was Hope Hicks allowed to be involved in the drafting of the initial pro-Kelly statement about Rob Porter? I mean, that's like P.R. 101. If you were romantically involved with someone, you shouldn't be...


HOSSAIN: That's a conflict of interest.


HOSSAIN: But what, Chris, I also want to add to that is, forget about her drafting the statement.

BALDWIN: Quickly.

HOSSAIN: What about the fact that her colleagues and her boss let her date this guy that they knew was guilty of abusing his wives? They don't even care about the security of the women that work there.

BALDWIN: Well, we can't speak to that, but, listen, I appreciate every single one of you. We could keep going, but we have got to take a commercial break.

Anushay, Amanda, and Chris, I really appreciate the conversation. This is what I know everyone is talking about. Thank you.

Any moment now, that White House press briefing is set to begin. Obviously, they are going to be facing a lot of questions, as we just discussed there, so stay tuned for that. We will take it live.

Also ahead, first class on the taxpayer dime -- what we are learning about EPA chief Scott Pruitt and his expensive travel habits.

And we're following our breaking news. In New York City, a member of President Trump's family opens a letter and finds white powder inside. We have an update for you, a live report on that straight ahead.

You're watching CNN.



BALDWIN: Another Trump Cabinet member might be in a bit of trouble for his expensive travel habits.

This time, we're talking about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in the spotlight for his frequent high-priced commercial flights. "The Washington Post" is reporting that Pruitt regularly flies first or business, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, more than the equivalent seats in coach.

This "Post" article indicates that, in June alone, flights for Pruitt an his top aides cost about $90,000. So this new scrutiny is coming after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stepped down last year after a scandal involving his use of private jets for official business.

Sara Ganim has been digging on this one for us today.

And, Sara, why is he flying so fancy?

SARA GANIM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, it's another week, another Cabinet secretary under fire.

And this time, it's the EPA's Scott Pruitt and this time it's his first-class travel that's getting the attention. Right? So, this watchdog group called the Environmental Integrity Project actually sued the EPA to get ahold of these travel vouchers because they're not public.


"The Washington Post" then was the first to really analyze them. And what they found was that, in the month of June alone, as you said, $90,000 to fly Pruitt and his staff to various events. Seems like a lot of money. So, we're going to it down a little bit. Here's what it looks like.

June 5, he flies a very short trip, Washington to New York. It costs $1,600 for him to fly in first class. That was nearly six times the price of the ticket of the aide who sat in coach.

And that's how we know that it was so expensive, is because he did have an aide who sat in coach for about $250. Then, on June 7, he flies New York to Rome. Scott Pruitt's seat cost just over $7,000, while the aide's ticket was about $2,000.

And right before that trip, he flew from Cincinnati to New York on a military jet, at a cost of about $36,000. Now, there are several more expensive trips last year that were uncovered by this project.

One of them was a $4,000 trip. Another one was a $10,000 ticket. And those were multi-city stops. But, still, the EPA told "The Washington Post" that all of this travel was approved by federal ethics officials. And the reason for it is Pruitt is trying to achieve this what they call tangible environmental result through his traveling.

Now, we also know that certain flights, they do get approved when there are no other options. Or when there's a security concern, they will make exceptions as well, but the Environmental Integrity Project simply it's much more into extravagant than administrators in the past, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Mm-hmm. Sara Ganim, keep looking into it. Thank you so much.

Coming up: a stunning admission. A former medical director for an insurance company said he denied treatments for people without even looking at their medical records. It's a CNN exclusive. We have it for you next.

Also, the Obamas making a rare return into the public eye today for the unveiling of their official portraits -- how it unfolded and the reaction that has followed.



BALDWIN: To a CNN exclusive.

California is launching an investigation now into insurance giant Aetna after a stunning admission.

CNN has learned that a former medical director with the company admitted under oath that he never even looked at patient records before deciding to approve or deny care, sparking all kinds of questions over Aetna's practices nationwide.

Our CNN senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, reports.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dr. Jay Ken Iinuma is a former medical director at Aetna. He says millions of Aetna members likely lived in his Southern California territory. He had the power to say yea or nay to coverage for medical procedures.

So, how did he make those decisions?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you ever look at medical records or basically were never...


COHEN: Not by looking at medical records. Now the state of California is launching an investigation.

DAVE JONES, CALIFORNIA INSURANCE COMMISSIONER: If a health insurer is making decisions to deny coverage without a physician actually ever reviewing medical records, that's a significant concern to me as insurance commissioner in California and potentially a violation of law.

COHEN: Responding to the investigation, an Aetna spokesman told CNN: "Aetna medical directors are trained to review all available medical information, including medical records, to make an informed decision," adding that medical director "take their duties and responsibilities as medical professionals incredibly seriously."

The acknowledgement by Dr. Iinuma is a cornerstone of a lawsuit against Aetna by a young man named Gillen Washington. Aetna initially paid for Washington's treatments after services were rendered, but, in 2014, Iinuma didn't pre-approve payment for Washington to have treatment like this.

He needs these infusion because he a serious immune deficiency. Aetna didn't pre-authorize Washington's treatments because it said it needed current blood work to meet the criteria. And despite being told more than once by his own doctor that he needed to come in for the blood work, he failed to do so for several months.

Without treatment, Washington became sicker and sicker, ending up in the intensive care treatment with a collapsed lung.

GILLEN WASHINGTON, PLAINTIFF: The doctor said I had zero immunity, none. So that's terrifying.

COHEN (on camera): When you were in that intensive care unit, did you fear death?

WASHINGTON: Yes, very much so. Every day and every night.

COHEN (voice-over): Now a jury is expected to sort out the facts. Among the questions to consider, can a doctor at an insurance company make decisions about a patient without looking at his medical record? Iinuma didn't respond to numerous phone calls from CNN.

In a deposition, he said he relied on information from nurses who did read the records and that he followed Aetna's policies appropriately. Aetna says his tenure ended in 2015.

Patient advocates have long been concerned that insurance companies don't take the time to thoroughly review patients' medical records before making decisions.

Now California's insurance commissioner is asking others to step forward if they feel they have been wronged.

WASHINGTON: I want Aetna to be made to change.

COHEN: Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Westminster, California.


BALDWIN: Elizabeth, thank you.

Moments from now, live pictures there at the White House Briefing Room. We are waiting to see Sarah Sanders. Lots of questions amid this confusion among President Trump's conflicting remarks over the whole Rob Porter scandal. We are going to listen in on that.

That's going to begin very shortly.

Also breaking news, this white powder scare involving a member of President Trump's family. Who got the letter? What's going on? Jason Carroll has the details coming up.