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White House Struggles on Abuse Story; Trump Defends Porter; Trump's History of Defending Med Accused of Misconduct. Aired 6:00- 6:30a ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 06:00   ET


[06:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: It's good to have you back.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: It's nice to be with you.

CUOMO: Thank you for being here.

Quite the day for you. Here's our starting line.

The Trump White House struggling to give just one, consistent story about the scandal rocking the West Wing now for nearly a week. Trump aides defending the president's chief of staff, General John Kelly, over his handling of the domestic abuse allegations that led to the ouster of Rob Porter. President Trump is taking heat for a tweet this weekend defending men accused of sexual misconduct and dismissing the women alleging abuse. Remember, this is not what the president seemed to liken it too, cheating or -- and even inappropriate workplace behavior. This is about violence and abuse. The second ex-wife of Porter is responding to the president's apparent lack of empathy in a new essay.

HILL: Meantime, it is a big day on Capitol Hill. The Senate begins debate today on one of the thorniest issues in Washington, immigration. GOP senators set to introduce President Trump's plan, which is sure to face some serious headwinds. So can Congress strike a deal to protect dreamers?

And the White House set to unveil today it's long-awaited $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. Except here's the thing, no one seems to know how to pay for it.

We've got a lot to cover. Let's begin with CNN's Kaitlan Collins, who's live at the White House.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, good morning, Erica and Chris.

Though the White House is still struggling to get a consistent explanation of who knew what and when about these allegations about Rob Porter, even though it's been days since he stepped down. And though aides are insistent that the president is privately critical about Porter and these very disturbing allegations, his public remarks are raising questions of just how seriously the president is taking these allegations.


COLLINS: Top White House aides doing damage control, denying reports that President Trump is considering replacing Chief of Staff John Kelly amid criticism over his handling of the domestic abuse allegations against his right-hand man, Rob Porter.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I spoke to the president. He said please tell Jake that I have full faith in Chief of Staff John Kelly, and that I am not actively searching for replacements. He said, I saw that all over the news today. I have faith in him.

COLLINS: White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney downplaying reports that he's being considered for Kelly's job.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: I don't want that job. I love the job -- jobs that I have now. And, more importantly, I think the chief of staff is doing a really good job.

COLLINS: This even as some Republicans are calling on Kelly to explain why he continued to elevate Porter's profile in the West Wing despite learning about the allegations months ago.

FORMER GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I think, in the end, we've got to hear from John Kelly as to what he knew. And I think the president needs to hear that before he can make an evaluation of competence.

COLLINS: Multiple aides insisting that the president is disturbed by the allegations and sympathetic towards Porter's accusers.

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: He's very disappointed in it. And I think that he believes that the resignation was appropriate.

CONWAY: I think the president, like the rest of us, were shocked and disturbed by the allegations. This is not the Rob Porter any of us have worked with. But, George, you're looking at contemporaneous police reports, at pictures, at details, allegations by these women --

COLLINS: This characterization a stark contrast to the president' tweet over the weekend declaring, people's lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation, after he expressed sympathy for Porter Friday but said nothing about his alleged victims.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We certainly wish him well. It a -- obviously a tough the time for him. He says he's innocent. And I think you have to remember that.

COLLINS: Porter's second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, slamming Mr. Trump's response in an essay for "Time" magazine, writing that the president's words were, quote, meant to imply that I am a liar. Willoughby adding that despite Mr. Trump's dismissal, I want to assure you that my truth has not been diminished. Meanwhile, Axios is reporting that Porter has been telling associates

that some senior White House officials strongly encouraged him to stay and fight rather than resign. Porter reportedly also maintaining that he never misrepresented anything to Kelly, as the White House continues to insist they were misled.

MULVANEY: Under the circumstances, he wasn't entirely forthcoming with him. And I think the photographs took everybody by surprise.


COLLINS: So, as you can see there, Erica and Chris, a messy trail of conflicting statements over this situation. And we're really seeing the outcry stretch into a new week here on the day that the president is expected to unveil his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

CUOMO: Right. And as Erica laid out -- Kaitlan, thank you very much -- the money, the price tag's big, how they're going to pay for it, creating even more confusion.

All right, so let's bring in the big shots. CNN political analysts David Drucker and Karoun Demirjian.

So, Karoun Demirjian, let's start, first of all, with the good word. Good for Kellyanne Conway for saying that is painfully obvious. This is not a, quote, mere allegation the way the president put it in his tweet. This also isn't about stepping out on your spouse or even inappropriate workplace conduct.

[06:05:05] This is about violence and abuse. You have contemporaneous legal action. You've got a black eye. You've got two women with coordinated stories who have no reason to have concerted action.

So Kellyanne said the right thing. But why can't the White House get its story straight about what they knew, what they did, and why it's wrong?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I mean, that's the troubling part. I mean I'd add to your list of things right there that this is also what seems to have held up his security clearance (INAUDIBLE) come into full fruition with the FBI.

So you've gotten conflicting responses, reactions, what have you. Now we're hearing that the president, what he told us publically, is not actually what he's thinking privately from the Axios report.

All of this just goes to show you that it's a jumbled mess. The question is ultimately one of management. What should the White House have done something before this actually got to be a very public thing in the press that we've all, the entire country, beyond the country, is seeing these pictures, that they were warned several times over the 13 months that they've been in office. Shouldn't this have been something that they took care of?

And -- look, I think the assumption for many people is, yes, if they actually knew all this information. Yet they're showing in this past several days that they can't even manage the response to it. So it's kind of like a reflection of what came before in a way.

This is an issue where it shouldn't be that difficult to at least say at the outset, domestic violence, domestic abuse is wrong. To at least give lip service to the fact that these women have clearly been through something terrible. Even if you want to still say the Rob Porter I knew was a decent guy, this is all shocking, you can say all of those things, but they're choosing to only say one thing at a time. And that's why it's getting so confusing, especially because what the president is saying publicly does not match what his senior advisers are saying publically. And that's not the first time this has happened. But this is a very serious issue around which it's happened again.

HILL: And two points on that. Number one, Jennie Willoughby, the second ex-wife, telling Anderson last week she understands how there could be the public and the private persona because she saw it. So there's that.

And, Karoun, you brought up the question of management. And, David, I want to throw this to you. When we talk about the issue of management in this White House, where is it coming from? Is it simply coming from the top down, from the president, or is this an issue with John Kelly?

DAVID DRUCKER: Well, it's a great question. You know, I think that it always starts at the top. Whether you like the president's performance or you don't, if you credit him for things that go well, often he's to blame for things that don't because he sets the tone.

What's interesting here is, this is what John Kelly was brought in to clean up. This sort of slip shod, chaotic style of management that saw different parts of the West Wing speaking in different languages and saw things like this that should have been simply a part of good vetting and proper communication handled. And this is the first time we've really seen something like this blow up on John Kelly's watch.

There have been other slipups. There have been some bumps in the road. That is to be expected. But this is a real problem.

But again, I think it gets back to the president, Erica, simply because, while you have members of the president's administration go on the Sunday shows and say all of the right things, it starts at the top. And the only thing we've heard from the president publicly has been airing on the side of defending John Porter (ph). And while there's some merit to the discussion about whether or not some men have been railroaded as there have been a greater focus on domestic abuse and harassment in the workplace, this is clearly not one of those cases when you have not one but two women --

CUOMO: Right.

DRUCKER: Coming forth with the same story and with photographic evidence. And the president could have made this a lot easier on his staff and on Kelly if he had simply expressed some sympathy for what happened and willing --

CUOMO: Right. But that would have only happened with half of it. Javi (ph), our EP, is saying that we do have the sound of the president talking about this. But, you know what, that -- all right, we'll play it, even though I don't think it's the main problem here. But let's play it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.


CUOMO: Look, let's be very clear about this and take the time to do it. You know, I don't think -- in the next segment we're going to talk about the politics of what we're doing culturally and legally to embrace the Me Too movement and how that's being treated by the president of the United States. A worthy and important conversation.

However, this is not that, OK? It's part of that. But domestic abuse is a scourge in this country like no other. It is the only codified form of torture that is allowed in our society. So, it deserves a respect, period, that this president doesn't give it. That's one problem. That's a big problem, especially for this president.

But, Karoun, the other one is something that you mentioned earlier in your answer. He has a temporary clearance, this guy, Porter. Now he's gone. And the reason for it seems to be at least partially inclusive of this issue.

[06:10:08] And that takes us to the really big problem where General John Kelly is involved. He was brought in as an agent of integrity. That's what he was brought in as.

Somebody is lying here, Karoun. Somebody knew. Because they had every reason to know. And we keep on bringing people who were in the same positions in the White House and they say, of course you would have known. It's part of the package. It's part of the clearance. Somebody knew and they didn't act on this, Karoun, and now they're covering it up.

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I mean, somebody knew of reasons that a lot of White House aides have not gotten their full security clearance, including the president's son-in-law, I mean, who is reading the daily intelligence briefings. So in a way -- in a way -- I'm trying to qualify it, but just to have a -- you know, put this in context, in a way there -- when there is over 30 people in the White House that are, you know, in the -- in limbo, basically, for their full security clearance and you're trying to figure out which one to deal with, in a way it's almost -- you know, understandable that your attention would be divided and not fully on Rob Porter.

However, the fact that they chose not to act on Rob Porter suggests that there is a complacency or a level of comfort with having this kind of 1950s mentality of, well, that doesn't directly affect the workplace maybe because that's just an at-home thing. He's a decent, responsible guy. He actually can help keep the president in line. He's somebody that actually tries to -- helps with this feeling of law and order at home so we're just going to -- in the office, so we're going to ignore everything that's on the home front. That's problematic. That is a very antiquated -- I mean it's not antiquated. It still continues to this very day. But we'd like to at least think that we're making through things like the Me Too moment, et cetera, progress on that front to say, this is not OK anymore. And you really -- that's the tragedy of this is that when you are in the White House, you have the opportunity to set that sort of tone for the country and it is not being set. The opposite, in a way, is actually being communicated.

DRUCKER: And just to pick up on the issue of vetting that Karoun spoke about. You have a couple dozen people who have not been cleared. And they have been looking at sensitive information. And you can't put that genie back in the bottle.

And this is something that needs to be cleared up, whether it's this White House or any other. Because if these clearances are to mean something and this information is as sensitive as seems to be the case, then they either need to be cleared to see it or they need to be denied being able to see it because otherwise the clearance is meaningless and we've let sensitive information out of the bag.

HILL: And it makes you wonder, too, if -- just to put a button on that, your point about the clearance being meaningless. While you're waiting for that clearance, you still have this temporary --

CUOMO: That's right.

HILL: Temporary status for a little while too. So all of that being taken into account, obviously. David, Karoun, appreciate it.

As Chris mentioned, the Me Too movement gaining momentum. But what is the impact when we start talking about the president's words, specifically from Friday and over the weekend? Is this the kind of movement that could actually take down the president? An ominous warning from the president's former chief strategist. That's next.


[06:16:32] HILL: The White House is defending the administration's response after domestic abuse allegations forced two aides to resign. The president, though, taking heat for a tweet over the weekend. In case you missed it, we have it for you. It reads, 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?

Let's discus with CNN political commentator Tara Setmayer and Alice Stewart.

Good to have both of you here with us.

So are we -- I don't know, Tara, are we all missing something on the due process here?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, this is a topout (ph). OK, any time we start talking about process -- of course we all believe in due process in a criminal court of law. This isn't a criminal court. This is the court of public opinion. This is politics. This is dealing with someone that actually earns the taxpayer's money. And I think the American people deserve to have people that are -- that are trustworthy, that are competent and that don't beat their wives. And that you don't have to worry about pictures of black eyes and stories of domestic abuse coming from people who are handling sensitive information inside the White House who can't qualify for a security clearance because of how severe the mere allegations were.

I just think that people would -- any time they default to process instead of listening to accusers -- I mean do false accusations happen? Yes, they do. But that is very, very rare. This is -- domestic abuse is a huge problem. And I think that this country really hasn't had a serious conversation about it since Ray Rice, when he -- when that horrible video came out when he knocked his fiance out in an elevator.

HILL: In the elevator, yes.

SETMAYER: That was the last time I think the country really had a discussion about that. But this instance of domestic abuse really shows that you never know who it is. This is the suffering in silence kind of domestic abuse that so many women have gone through and why the Me Too movement is so important because it emphasizes women need to be heard. And what the president did and how he handled this, him directly, not his surrogates, who I really have no patience for, who come out and try to clean up his mess. What the president did was he missed an opportunity to morally lead from the Oval Office on this issue. But I'm not surprised because he's incapable and he's done this before. He's been derilis (ph) in this area before. So it's unsurprising yet still disappointing.

CUOMO: And let's show that. I mean there is a clear track record of who the president decides to get behind, who he doesn't and why. Let's put up.

All right, so, Roy Moore. We know all -- know that dance. You know, we were there where the president was staying away from them, but he was there and he ultimately embraced him. Bill O'Reilly, he said positive things about in the face of significant allegations. Roger Ailes, same thing. Corey Lewandowski, same thing.

But, on the flip side of the scale, let's put up people that he's gone after because it's relevant.

All right, well, you -- Bill Clinton, he went after. Good reason, OK. He went of him. Now we get a case that is in real-time here as president and how he handled it. Al Franken, all right. You remember the picture that got Al Franken in all that trouble with the Democrats. This is an entirely different story about whether Franken, you know, whether that was the right move by the Democrats. But this is the picture on the right where the president was disgusted by this picture of obvious groping and assault. This was horrible evidence. The picture on the left is the first wife of Rob Porter. This, the president unmoved.

Alice, how is this anything other than being -- having a blind eye toward reality with this president and just playing favorites?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's nothing other than that, Chris. I mean he decides who he wants to support and who he doesn't want to. And he generally always supports the men, which is troubling.

[06:20:08] When we have cases like this, he typically tries to downplay these allegations. He will defend the men and he will denigrate the women. That is the president's pattern. And off times he will choose to push aside Democrat men who have been accused of that and stand behind Republican.

And the hard, cold reality is domestic violence and sexual harassment is non-partisan, it is non-race, it is non-gender, it is non-specific. They are terrible scourges on the society. And for the president to come out and tweet that domestic violence -- mere allegations of this sort are damaging to the people that are falsely accused or facing mere allegations know they're damaging to the victims. They're damaging to the women and the men who are suffering silently because they are victims of abusers. And that is something he needs to embrace.

It has been -- we'll give him the benefit of the doubt, that he didn't know about this until it hit the newspaper. That was four and a half days ago, 108 hours he has known about this and not one word, not tweet, not one letter has he said in sympathy to these women. And that is just atrocious. And if he doesn't take time to learn over the next 24 to 48 hours that he needs to show compassion for these victims, it's a sad state. It's a really sad state of affairs.

SETMAYER: You know what, though, even if he did do that now, it's reminiscent of how he responded to Charlottesville. It would come across as very unauthentic. You know, when he speaks off the cuff, and he speaks from the heart, that's how he really feels. And we can't give him a cookie because someone writes a statement for him to clean up the mess that he -- that he made on Friday and then on Saturday with his tweet reinforcing it.

So I think the same thing with Charlottesville. When he said, oh, you know, there's good people on both sides. That was after he read a statement and then they had to clean it up again. So I think, at this point, people realize that's who he is.

And so for Kellyanne Conway or anyone else to come on and say, well, the president feels that domestic abuse is unacceptable, you know what, B.S., because if he was -- if he was that upset about, as his spokespeople are, then he would have said so when he had the opportunity to on Friday.

CUOMO: Fair point. SETMAYER: And then he would have tweeted it out at least to reinforce it on Saturday and that's not what he did. And mainly it's because if he were to show sympathy or compassion or acknowledge the female victims, that would mean he'd have to acknowledge his own transgressions in this area. And he absolutely will not do that because, again, that's not in his character to ever admit fault. But, b, he's taught to double down. And in his mind, he probably thinks he's innocent, he's very paranoid, and those were just false allegations against him. So how come these other accusers are to be believed but his aren't to be believed. That is at the crux of this here, unfortunately. But this is who the American people decided to vote for. We knew who Donald Trump was for a long time, but the "Access Hollywood" video really showed us who he was and how he felt about women.

CUOMO: It doesn't mean you accept his behavior as a standard.

SETMAYER: No, it shouldn't be.

CUOMO: And there may be a political overlay to this as well --

SETMAYER: And there should be.

CUOMO: Which is what you were going to get to.

HILL: I was going to say, so -- and this is fascinating. So in Josh Green's book, "The Devil's Bargain," Steve Bannon saying the following, the anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo 10,000 years of recorded history. You watch. The time has come. Women are going to take charge of society and they couldn't juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He's the patriarch.

But, Alice, is this really how that plays out. I mean that almost seems like a little bit of wishful thinking there, that really Donald Trump is going to be the man who in some ways takes the fall for all of this? I find that surprising.

STEWART: I think that's a little bit too much. But I think the reality is, is that women across the country are looking at this and they are really disappointed. They're looking at someone that they thought would transition from "Access Hollywood" Trump to a President Trump that would set a tone on situations like this.

He can't deny the numbers. Unfortunately, when we're talking about domestic violence, one in four women and one in seven men are victims of physical violence from their partners. That is an astounding number of people. And there are many others that don't come forward. So there are many people -- 25 percent of women in this country are suffering in silence. And so far this president has done nothing to acknowledge them. And, instead, as we heard from the -- a piece written by Jennie Willoughby, the second wife of Rob Porter --

CUOMO: Worth reading.

HILL: Yes.

SETMAYER: Yes, it is.

STEWART: Yes, certainly. And her point is that people like her that have the strength and courage to come forward, they need to be listened to. And so far they don't feel like he's listening to them.

HILL: She also said in that piece too, this is not a political issue, it's a societal issue.

CUOMO: It is.


HILL: And the tone has just been reset by the White House.

CUOMO: We are working on a documentary on this issue. We have been for months. It will astound. And let me just say something, the men who are out there taking the president's back on this and forwarding these arguments, you're embarrassing yourself. You're embarrassing your families. Put something before your politics because this, my friends, is a joke to get behind this kind of sentiment.

[06:25:01] Tara, Alice, thank you very much. Appreciate you being with us.

SETMAYER: Thank you.

STEWART: Thanks, Chris.

CUOMO: So, the winter games, big. Off to a big start. There's a whole geo-political angle. And, of course, the sports themselves. You see the lady on your screen? Wow did she set history in a big way. A U.S. figure skater did something no other American woman has ever done in Olympic competition. We have a live report from South Korea, next.


CUOMO: Been watching the Olympics? It's a good one. Team USA shining so far, picking up its first two gold medals. The U.S. dominating the snowboard competition. However, this one figure skater did something that no American woman has ever done on Olympic ice.

Coy Wire with one of those dream assignments. He's there in South Korea with the "Bleacher Report."

[06:30:01] And you're doing great, my brother.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: And it's a dream. I'm pinching myself but I can't feel it. It's cold here, Chris. Feels-like temperatures right now, negative five. It's the wind, though, those 45 mile per hour gusts that will slap you