Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Faith In Kelly; Trump Defends Porter; White House Officials without Full Clearance; South Korean President Invited for Visit; Pence Open to North Korean Talks. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Jerusalem, 9:00 p.m. in Mogadishu, Somalia. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Baffled. White House aides telling CNN, they can't understand the president's position on his former aide who is accused of domestic abuse. This, as he defends Rob Porter and seems to defy the entire MeToo movement.

Open secrets. Thirty to 40 Trump administration officials operating without full security clearance, including the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner. What this means for America's national security.

And getting warmer. The Trump administration indicating it's willing to talk to North Korea but saying it's up to Kim Jong-Un. So, who blinks first?

All of that coming up.

But let's start with the confusion inside the White House right now as officials try to get their heads around President Trump's stance on Rob Porter, the former aide resigning over spousal abuse allegations.

Publicly, the president has defended Porter, saying the accounts are just mere allegations and shouldn't ruin someone's career.

But reports say that, privately, the president considers Porter, and I'm quoting now, "sick."

Our Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny, he's joining us right now.

Jeff, what are you hearing over there on the president's decision to publicly stand by Rob Porter?


We do know, at this moment, that, first of all, White House chief of staff John Kelly is still on the job here. And, of course, he is the key part of all of this equation.

Rob Porter, of course, a senior aide who resigned abruptly last week, is perhaps on the president's mind, but the president did not answer questions about him and the whole matter of security clearances, just a short time ago here at the White House when he was doing an infrastructure event with governors and others from around the country.

But the White House chief of staff was front and center in the room with the president, and he is, indeed, on the job here.

Now, this certainly has given an opening for many people who don't necessarily like John Kelly to voice their concern. But we do know, as far as we can tell, at this moment, the president still stands behind him.

This is what Kellyanne Conway, the Senior Adviser to the President, told Jake Tapper, yesterday on "STATE OF THE UNION."


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISOR, PRESIDENT TRUMP: 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 am not actively searching for replacements. He said, I saw that all over the news today. I have faith in him. And he does.


ZELENY: So, that, of course, is the president's words through Kellyanne Conway, that the president has confidence in the chief of staff.

But, again, it is the question about Rob Porter. The president, of course, standing by him publicly. But privately, some reports say he was not thrilled at all by what he saw.

The question is there has just not been a sense of unified message or clarity here. We've not heard from the chief of staff. We've not heard from other advisers here.

So, until some people come forward and answer more questions -- maybe it'll happen at -- happen at the briefing this afternoon. There is still this cloud here hanging over the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That briefing now has been delayed to, what, around 3:00 p.m. Eastern, is that right?

ZELENY: Indeed, around 3:00 p.m. And this is will be the first briefing where Sarah Sanders has the opportunity to answer some of these questions and fill in some of the blanks about what the president said on Friday. He said that Rob Porter is a good man. He tweeted on Saturday saying that, you know, careers and lives shouldn't be ruined because of this.

But, yet, you know, there is sense, here at the White House, that the -- you know, they're just not sure where the president stands on this. So, that, of course, is one opportunity for at least the press secretary to speak to some of these questions -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you very much. Jeff Zeleny over at

the White House. We'll get back to you.

Let's bring in our panel. Joining us, CNN Political Analyst Karoun Demirjian; our Congressional Report -- the congressional reporter for Politico, Rachel Bay; our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

So, lots of confusion. Some White House officials saying they're baffle by what the president says in private, as opposed to what he's saying publicly.

What do you think?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and they're -- I understand why they're baffled. I'd be battled, too, if I were working inside the White House.

They are also concerned about a timeline that was offered by General Kelly that they're not really sure is accurate. Did he lie to his own staff?

So, I think there is a -- you know, there's lot of confusion there. The president and -- you know, you heard Kellyanne Conway saying that -- you know, that the president has confidence in General Kelly.

I know, from my own reporting, that the president has been calling around to people saying, well, if this job were to become open, would you potentially be interested in it? Someone -- his good friend, Tom Barrack, said, no, I would not.

But it was -- it was -- it was not, you know, I want you to do this job. It was, kind of, one of those, well, if I -- if I were thinking about making a change.

So, if you're sitting inside the White House, of course you'd be scratching your head about this because it's completely dysfunctional.

[13:05:02] BLITZER: Yes. And Axios, Karoun, you probably saw that report, they're suggesting that Rob Porter was told to stay and fight these allegations.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And so, the discrepancy between stay and fight, versus I told him to -- there's the door, 40 minutes after I understood the allegations were credible, is your first disconnect right there.

Not to mention the fact this goes back to the beginning of the Trump administration, in terms of the number of times that people in the White House were warned that this was actually a concern.

And either they had reason to maybe ask questions or -- about what the substance of this was. And knew, to some extent, that it was about these issues, because Porter was not getting fully approved for his full security clearance.

So, I mean, this is just -- it's remarkable that we've been talking about this for a week, at this point. It's not the first time the White House has had difficulty getting its story straight. But to go on for this long is really striking.

And indicates that, look, this started out -- Rob Porter -- domestic abuse is a poor -- it's a problem.

But, for the White House, this is a management problem and it continues to be a management problem because they can't get their stories straight about what happened and what they decided to do.

BLITZER: And the scandal is -- represents a significant embarrassment, a very awkward situation, for Republicans. In general, the Republican Party has basically been silent on these latest allegations.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes, it's starting to spill onto Capitol Hill which is where I work every day. And, basically, Republicans are embarrassed by this. They don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.

But there is a group of about a dozen Senate Democrats who have pretty much vowed to get answers on this. They want to know who knew what and when and was this on Porter's security clearance?

And that's not to mentioned, you know, this is totally drowning out everything that's going out right now this week.

I mean, the Senate is getting ready to take on this huge immigration debate this week, where the president's immigration proposal is actually going to get a vote. The president's out there talking about infrastructure.

And nobody's really listening to that stuff because Porter, six days later, is still taking up everything and sucking up all the oxygen.

BORGER: I know. And, look, the RNC, when it -- when it -- when Steve Wynn had to leave as the finance chair, they're not giving back contributions, at this point, because they say the allegations against him are unproven.

And so, you know, you have this whole Steve Wynn scenario playing out on the -- on the sidelines to the Rob Porter scenario playing out inside the White House.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. But then, there's the pushing for (INAUDIBLE.) If you want to, kind of, take a middle road, there were all kinds of options over the last 13 months.

So, put him on administrative leave while you investigate it. And none of that happened either.

So, the fact that we're in this -- it shows you how much turmoil this is for the GOP that we're, kind of, comparing these situations, and they're comparing those situations as well. And that we're still talking about it a week later. BORGER: Well, and you have a president who has not talked about -- in

the case of Rob Porter, he hasn't talked about the women. He's just talked about how terrible it is for Rob Porter, publicly.

BADE: And he should -- he should probably take a cue, then, from Kellyanne Conway who's actually gotten -- her remarks, yesterday, were very, you know, delicate.

She talked about not only these being accusations but also mentioning the police report and these women talking under penalty of perjury to, sort of, emphasize that this goes beyond a mere allegation.

And you would think the White House would, sort of, take a cue from that. Not yet so far, at least.

DEMIRJIAN: You would, indeed.

And also, the other thing that I would just stress is that this is just one person out of over 30 people that don't have their full security clearance yet.

And the fact that we're focusing on this one person, I mean, what are we not focusing on for the others? Presumably, they are domestic barriers in all those other cases. And might be things that play in much more closely to the day-to-day business of the -- you know, the government and the functioning of the White House.

So, in a way, it's -- the fact that this has continued on is really surprising and shocking and, yet, also means we're not paying as much attention to countless others.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Gloria, because I know you look at the numbers closely. In the 2016 presidential election, the president carried 41 percent of the women's vote, 52 percent of white women. What do you think that's going to be now that he seems to be going against the MeToo movement?

BORGER: Well, it's -- you know, it's, honestly, hard to predict, Wolf. It depends who the president's running against, et cetera.

But noncollege-educated -- noncollege-educated white women, the president won by 27 points, a remarkable number.

And the question I have is whether the MeToo movement, if the pendulum kind of swings to the other side, whether these women will be with Donald Trump on this or not. You know, I think that there's a lot that's going to play out before we -- before we really know.

I think the women who were not with him are not going to be any more with him, let's put it that way. And maybe the so-called -- well, these women will maybe -- we know more of them are running for political office. We assume more of them will go out to vote.

But it's these noncollege-educated white women that he's so powerful with. The question is how this will affect them. I don't know the answer. BLITZER: What do you think?

[13:10:00] BADE: I think -- so, there was a report in the past 24 hours, saying, you know, Steve Bannon, who used to be very close to the president, obviously not so much in the circle anymore.

But saying that exactly, that he is concerned that the women are going to be so opposed to Donald Trump that this could, potentially, swing the midterm elections in 2018. And then, again, in 2020, have a really dire effect on his reelection.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Karoun, Rachael, Gloria, thanks very, very much.

A stunning revelation. Dozens of White House officials still operating without a full security clearance, including, as we've reported, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. You're going to find out what classified information they're actually seeing.

Plus, a seismic shift in recent days, involving nuclear tensions with North Korea. Why the U.S. may be warming up to the possibility of talks with Kim Jong-Un.

And the former president and the former first lady making a rare public appearance for the unveiling of their official portraits. You're going to see what happened.



[13:15:05] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Dozens of Trump administration officials and appointees, they're working without full security clearances. A source tells CNN that 30 to 40 percent are still operating with interim security clearances more than a year into the Trump presidency. One of the most notable names on the list, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Let's get some perspective from our CNN intelligence and security analyst, the former CIA operative, Bob Baer.

Bob, is this unprecedented from your experience? How unusual is this?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Wolf, I've never seen this before where you've got people in the White House, they're given precedence for getting cleared, security clearances. And, remember, the White House is seeing the most secret stuff, wave special access programs from the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and the CIA. And for these people to be held up on a security clearance is very, very unusual. In fact, I'm not even sure I've heard of it before.

You know, the question is, why. Even the White House doesn't know why they're being held up because the FBI simply does its investigation. They're looking for unexplained foreign contacts, financial entanglements or crimes. BLITZER: What about someone without a full security clearance having

access to some of the most sensitive classified information? Walk us through the kind of risk that potentially could pose.

BAER: Well, what happens, Wolf, a lot of this stuff is transmitted to the White House electronically. So basically anybody that could get in the Situation Room and the rest of it can see this stuff. And there's no control over it. The CIA's not there, the National Security Agency is not in there to monitor this stuff. And normally you can't see it at all. But once it gets into the White House, it's gone. And this is going to make the intelligence agency very reluctant to send on to the White House very secret stuff. I mean, I would be.

BLITZER: We mentioned -- we've reported that the president's senior adviser, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, still does not have full security clearance. He has interim security clearance. That's been the case for more than a year now. The administration points to paperwork errors in filling out the forms, bureaucratic decisions, bureaucratic decisions. What do you make of that?

BAER: That's -- I don't believe it, Wolf, not for a minute. I mean there's a problem. The FBI will bend over backwards to clear these people into the White House. And they do it very quickly. And interim clearances just don't count. I mean if you're in the federal government and you're having the same sort of problems, they will sideline you. They'll send you down to the library. You will lose access immediately if you can't clear a security, you know, background investigation like this.

So, again, this is very, very unusual, and it worries me.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, thanks so much for joining us.

BAER: Thank you.

BLITZER: As North Korea hits the world stage at the Olympics, the U.S. suddenly warming up to the possibility of direct talks with Kim Jong- un's regime. You're going to hear why.

And Israel says a downed Iranian drone was a copy of an American drone that Iran intercepted years ago. What this means potentially for America's spy games.


[13:22:27] BLITZER: Kim Jong-un's personal invitation to visit North Korea is causing a diplomatic dilemma for the South Korean president. The message was relayed through Kim's sister. Now the president, Moon Jae-in, must figure out how to navigate the way forward, weighing how South Korea's allies would react to a meeting with North Korea brutal dictator.

For more let's go to our international correspondent Will Ripley. He's joining us from Pyeongchang in South Korea, the site of the Winter Olympic games.

Will, was Kim Jong-un's sister's visit a diplomatic win or a diplomatic loss? How was it received?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, if you're Kim Jong-un, it was definitely a diplomatic win. He sent his telegenic younger sister, Kim Yo-jong here to Pyeongchang. She delivered a letter inviting South Korea's president Moon Jae-in to visit North Korea. He accepted on principle. They had photo-ops at hockey games. They had dinners, smiles, handshakes. It was optics. Everything that Kim Jong-un wanted.

And if your South Korea's president, it was also a win because he ran on a platform of engaging with North Korea and now he potentially could -- he's already had the biggest diplomatic of the Kim Jong-un era and he might be heading to North Korea in the coming months.

If you're the United States, however, well, kind of a loss. Vice President Pence came here talking very strongly against North Korea. He met with defectors. He brought the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died, after being released from North Korea custody. He called on South Korea publically to disengage completely with North Korea after the Olympics. South Korea, obviously, is not disengaging. They're doing the opposite. So Vice President Pence had some discussions and decided, OK, the U.S. can endorse this engagement as long as certain conditions are met, that the maximum pressure continues and no money is paid under the table to the North Koreans. But the U.S. really put in a box here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Will Ripley at the scene for us.

Thanks so much for that.

Let's get some analysis about these late breaking developments. I'm joined by CNN political analyst Josh Rogin, and Balbina Hwang. She's a former senior adviser to the State Department.

And, Josh, you spent the week with the vice president, Mike Pence. You interviewed him on the way back. He's now seemingly open to the idea of the U.S. and North Korea engaging in direct talks.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's right, Wolf. What Mike Pence told me is that in principle the Trump administration has always been willing to talk to North Korea. What they feared was that the South Koreans were going to move ahead of them and give the North Koreans concessions just for talking.

After having two private meetings with Moon Jae-in, one in his residence and one while watching speed skating, they came to an agreement and the agreement is, no concessions for talking. And based on that assurance, Pence gave him the green light to continue. First, South Korea and North Korea talks. Then potentially U.S. North Korea talks after that.

[13:25:09] It's a small compromise to keep the alliance together and allow Moon to pursue his engagement with North Korea, and it could lead to direct talks with the U.S., although that doesn't mean negotiations, that doesn't mean peace, it's just a small, diplomatic opening. BLITZER: It shouldn't necessarily be all that much of a surprise given

the fact that President Trump himself, as recently as last month at Camp David, said he's open to having a phone conversation with the North Korean leader.

ROGIN: Well, that's right. And Vice President Pence was talking to President Trump every day that he was on the trip. Rex Tillerson has also said that he wants to have talks without pre-conditions. And they call them talks about talks. So this is not a new idea.

But the problem was the South Koreans were moving ahead without us, and that created a gap. And what Vice President Pence did with Moon Jae-in is they closed that gap behind the scenes, doing the hard work of diplomacy. That allowed the alliance to continue, while seeing if this engagement is going to work.

Now, this engagement might not work. There's a lot of things that could go wrong. We're going to have new sanctions. The North Koreans could do another provocation. A lot of things could happen. They might not want to talk to us, which is what Red Tillerson said in the Middle East today. We don't know if they want to sit down with us. But, anyway, the door is open. What Mike Pence said to me is, if you want to talk, we'll talk.

BLITZER: Balbina, listen to what the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, actually said about this. Listen to this.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it's too early to judge. As we've said for some time, it's really up to the North Koreans to decide when they're ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way. They know what has to be on the table for conversations.


BLITZER: So what's your analysis?

BALBINA HWANG, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER, STATE DEPARTMENT: Well, I think, first of all, that we're making too much about this supposed gap between the two sides.

BLITZER: Between, what do you mean, South Korea and --

HWANG: Between the Trump administration and the Moon administration. And --

BLITZER: In South Korea.

HWANG: That's correct. And I think to say that South Korea was way ahead with North Korea is also not quite correct. I think that this trip and the success and the breakthrough was very critical not because of this willingness to talk, which I think is actually very consistent. The Trump administration's North Korea policy review, issued very

early last year, stated very clearly that it was maximum pressure and engagement. And Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis have been very consistent about this.

Now, where we really achieved the significant breakthrough is, I think, a division of labor, that President Moon -- and I hesitate to say the U.S. gave the green light to South Korea, because I think the issues, inter-Korean issues should be left to South Korea to lead. And now there is open and I think it's very positive to have articulated this division of labor that South Korea can proceed, but absolutely without concessions up front on the nuclear issue.

BLITZER: Because you've heard all the analysis, Josh, that there's a good cop/bad cop routine going on. The good cop, the South Koreans, the bad cop, the U.S.

ROGIN: Right. But it's only good cop/bad cop if it's done deliberately, OK? And my reporting shows that when South Korea announced these talks, they didn't consult with the U.S. in advance. They notified them. They learned about it when it was announced. That was a problem that they had to fix.

And you're right that, you know, this is -- there's an inter-Korean dynamic and then there's a U.S. dynamic and we have different interests. The U.S. interest is to protect U.S. security. That Moon Jae-in has a whole different set of calculations. Merging those, finding the overlap, and then at least presenting a unified front and knowing what you're doing, that was something that did not exist before Mike Pence got to South Korea.

After he left South Korea, that did exist. That's the change that I'm reporting. That's what Mike Pence was telling about. That's, again, significant. It doesn't solve all the problems. But it allows everyone to move forward and it allows everyone to find out if this engagement has any legs.

BLITZER: So how do you -- how do you think, Balbina, the North Koreans are going to react to what the vice president is saying?

HWANG: Well, I think, even though I regard all of these developments as very positive, North Korea really ends up really in charge of the game here, because now what North Korea has managed to do is, it's not just dividing the allies. North Korea has made cooperation and essentially avoiding war on the Korean peninsula an issue with South Korea, the Republic of Korea. And now it's trying to make denuclearization a completely separate issue with the United States. That's the problem.

BLITZER: Let's not forget, the South Korean president, he ran on this notion of trying to establish a direct dialogue with North Korea to try to ease some of those nuclear tensions.

Guys, thanks very, very much. An important story.

Coming up, he's one of the most wanted men in the world. Now CNN has exclusive reporting on the recent whereabouts of the leader of ISIS and why he temporarily gave up control of the terrorist group.

[13:29:44] Plus, former President Obama and the former first lady, Michelle Obama, speaking just a little while ago at the unveiling of their official portraits here in Washington. It turned rather emotional. You're going to see what happened.