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CNN NEWSROOM

Immigration Debate To Begin In Senate; Interview with Sen. Joni Ernst; White House Struggles To Get Story Straight On Porter Allegations; Soon: FBI And Intel Chiefs Testify, Face Senate Grilling; Immigration Debate To Begin In Senate; White House Struggles To Get Story Straight On Porter Allegations. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 13, 2018 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: -- contractors are even coming in to help out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First I thought they was bad guys. They're good people.

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CUOMO: Stealing is wrong. But imagine if instead of criminalizing need.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

CUOMO: You saw this more often.

CAMEROTA: And by the way, it changed his impression of the police which is really, really helpful.

OK. Time for "CNN NEWSROOM with John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

We are minutes away from what could be high drama on Capitol Hill and a rare public update on aspects of the Russia investigation.

You're looking at live pictures right here from the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. In just moments we'll hear from three intelligence chiefs who have already been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team and perhaps even more importantly, we will hear from the new FBI director Christopher Wray who has been in the middle of several Washington firestorms. That's plural. Firestorms with an S.

This is his first real public appearance since the release of the Republican memo alleging FBI abuses in the Russia investigation over his objections.

What will Christopher Wray say about that? What will he say about the holdup in releasing the Democratic response? Will he reveal any new information about why he pushed out former deputy director Andy McCabe?

And then there's the brand new controversy. The claim from the White House that his people, FBI people, are the reason that dozens of West Wing staffers still do not have security clearances. That came up as a result of the deepening mess of a response from the White House on former staffer Rob Porter accused of domestic abuse. A response that objectively speaking has clarified little and confused a great deal.

CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House this morning for the very latest on that -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John. We are one week into this controversy over Rob Porter and these domestic abuse allegations. And we're still asking the question who knew what and when. There's still a lot of confusion about the timeline here and as more information comes out the more it seems that the White House's explanation doesn't quite hold up.

CNN has confirmed that the White House on Wednesday after the "Daily Mail" published those photographs, huddled with reporters to -- on Rob Porter to give his side of the story. That contradicts what we heard from Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the podium yesterday when she insisted that the White House acted quickly.

Now meanwhile, there's still more that we are hearing from Porter's ex-wives, specifically his wife Colbie -- ex-wife Colbie Holderness wrote an op-ed in "The Washington Post," going -- in response to what we heard from Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, over the weekend.

Now Kellyanne had made some comments about Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, suggesting that she was strong and capable of handling herself in a romantic relationship with Rob Porter. But Holderness said this about Kellyanne, she says, "While I cannot say I am surprised, I expected a woman to do better." And then she continues to say that beyond -- being strong with excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts does not inoculate a person against abuse. It doesn't prevent her from entering into a relationship with an abuser.

So -- but it's worth noting, Kellyanne on social media late last night responded to Holderness and she suggested that she had actually agreed with that sentiment, that she believes that strong women can be in relationships where there is abuse present, but clearly this White House is having a lot of trouble dealing with this controversy after seven days.

There's still a lot of questions unanswered about who knew what, including White House counsel Don McGahn who we know according to sources was told about these allegations months ago.

Again, John, these questions are going to continue well into the day today. The timeline continues to be in flux.

BERMAN: The timeline is a mess, Abby Phillip at the White House. PHILLIP: Yes.

BERMAN: Thanks very much. Especially with this new reporting just out that CNN confirmed.

Let's talk more about that. Joining me now, Dana Bash, CNN's chief political correspondent, Patrick Healy, CNN political analyst, and Mary Katharine Ham, a CNN political commentator.

Guys, let me just reiterate what Abby just said because we just got it confirmed while I was introducing you. And I think it's significant that after the photo of one of Rob Porter's ex-wives was released, the photo was public, Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, sets up an off- the-record meeting with Rob Porter accused of domestic abuse so Porter could tell his version of the story to several reporters there.

So despite what she was saying at the podium about trying to push him out within 40 minutes of this stuff going public, the White House now we learned is trying to spin their way out of this even after the photo was released.

Dana, this is a problem for now, you know, Sarah Sanders.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, there are so many problems. And as you said, the timeline and the reality of what they're saying now about the swift action that they took versus the reality of what was going on.

[09:05:07] And the fact that Kaitlan Collins, our White House correspondent, just confirmed that Sarah Sanders brought in four print reporters to speak off the record to Rob Porter to get his side of the story on Wednesday, Wednesday being the day that these photos came out, the photos came out online Wednesday morning, of course, it flies in the face of the notion that John Kelly is running around arguing that he took swift action.

It just does. It just does. They were in defiance mode, they were in defense mode, they were in we're going to fight this mode until the obvious expected overwhelming outrage that this guy was still there took hold and was made clear inside the White House.

BERMAN: You know, and Mary Katharine, not only is there a timeline problem here, but I'm sorry, there's also just an appropriateness problem here which is that the response from the White House, Sarah Sanders now, was to help Rob Porter essentially explain this evidence of abuse. It wasn't to question Rob Porter's story, it wasn't to push Rob Porter out. It was to amplify his version.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. This is sort of a bizarre move to bring these folks in and have this off the record. But it illustrates, as often with this team, this bunker mentality where her priority was to hear from Porter. Their priority was -- Trump's priority was to talk about Porter and how this has been hard for him after this came to light.

Look, you can vet allegations and you can decide if someone has gotten an amount of due process. In this case we have plenty of evidence. We have photographic evidence, we have contemporaneous news reports, we have women -- several of them -- talking to FBI representatives for security clearances. It's not like they're just gabbing with friends here.

This is a level of seriousness that was not taken seriously. And it's because that was their priority, was him.

BERMAN: And it's them picking a side. It's showing them picking a side even after the photo was released. I guess it's surprising to me, this new little piece of evidence really shows where their mind was even after, as far as I can tell, they knew just about everything there was to know.

Patrick Healy, your take on this.

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: A willingness by the White House to spin domestic violence allegations. I mean, that is what we are now talking about. Basically the White House was so determined to put forward basically a version of events that they weren't even willing, you know, to deal with the allegations, to deal with the photos, you know, as they were, but instead putting Rob Porter in front of reporters, you know, to sort of create an alternate timeline.

The White House knew exactly what it was doing. Don McGahn and John Kelly had known for months that at least there were allegations that were holding up a permanent security clearance for Rob Porter. They knew that these allegations at least were sufficient concern to the FBI to be, you know, at the very least, sort of slow walking a security clearance process.

And yet even when the photo comes out, even when you see the black eye on a woman, maybe they didn't know that woman. Maybe they knew Rob Porter very well and they didn't know this ex-wife, but they were still creating essentially a situation where -- John, you and I, Dana, certainly know we're put into rooms for off-the-record briefings basically to get a spin of a version of events. We know that we're being spun. It's audacious.

BERMAN: You know, Dana, you've been on the phone with people surrounding this White House overnight. And this morning. Do they think at this point that they're getting out ahead of this story?

BASH: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Do they think that this point they're handling it well? How do they think they're doing here?

BASH: No. Poorly, poorly. It's -- they're remarkably self-aware on that note. But what struck me, as I was talking to one Trump adviser outside the White House who was talking at this point in terms of the political ramifications, less about the domestic violence which, let's be honest, is potentially huge, but also about something that we're maybe talking less about which is the security clearance issue, and more importantly a nepotism issue.

And here's what I mean by that. In Patrick's paper this morning there was this story about Jared Kushner and the fact that this is kind of brought to the fore, a reminder that he does not have his permanent security clearance. And in that story it notes that perhaps part of the reason people didn't kind of shake the trees and raise questions about Rob Porter who was handling sensitive papers all day long, not having his permanent clearance, is because, by doing that, it raises the obvious question about Jared Kushner. He's the president's son- in-law and that puts everybody in an uncomfortable position.

[09:10:06] And this Trump adviser noted that this idea of nepotism, at least in internal polling, is off the charts. People do not like it.

BERMAN: Mary Katharine, if I can get your take on one last thing. We did hear from Colbie Holderness, who put an op-ed in the "Washington Post" last night in response to what she's been hearing. Colbie Holderness, this is the first wife of Rob Porter, the one we've seen in the photo with the black eye.

Let me just read you the first sentence -- the first statement. "Monday White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders again declined to say whether the president believes Willoughby and me. While I cannot say I'm surprised, I expected a woman to do better."

Again, this just gets to one aspect of this issue and the approach being taken by people inside the White House. This is a very important issue of domestic abuse, Mary Katharine.

HAM: Yes, I'm sorry that she had to write that. Right? She's been thrust into sort of the national spotlight by the White House's failure to deal with this through the proper channels. And look, I'd be mad, too. They're suggesting that maybe they don't believe her. The praising of her ex-husband was off the charts in the early going here even though they had all this evidence saying like we're better for having known him.

And here's the deal. Someone like this, as with his wives and many other co-workers, can trick someone for a long time. Can trick a lot of people for a long time. And look great in the workplace and be different behind closed doors. It can be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. But once you know Mr. Hyde exists, stop praising Dr. Jekyll. That's how this works. And the White House totally unable to do that.

BERMAN: I got to say, also, at this point now that we have this increasing timeline that we're developing from our reporting here and we all know what we know here, you know, to quote Hamilton here, and what the White House is doing about it is just increasingly surprising.

Dana Bash, Patrick Healy, Mary Katharine Ham, thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate it.

In just minutes, we're going to hear our first chance to hear from top intelligence officials including the FBI director Christopher Wray on the latest on the Russia investigation and the criticism of the FBI itself. Christopher Wray's first public statements in a long time. This will be fascinating.

Let's get right to Manu Raju on Capitol Hill -- Manu.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, actually the first time Christopher Wray will have weighed in publicly about the Nunes memo, drafted by the House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes, alleging FBI misconduct in the Russia investigation.

Of course Christopher Wray's agency put out that statement eviscerating that memo, said it was misleading, had grave concerns about it. We'll hear Christopher Wray himself about the concerns that he still may have about releasing that memo. In addition of what did he think about this Democratic rebuttal Adam -- that is being reviewed right now by the House Intelligence Committee after the White House rejected its declassification, what does Christopher Wray think about that.

But beyond that is a much broader hearing focusing on worldwide threats. And one of the major worldwide threats that members of this committee will undoubtedly ask about is Russia. And it will be once again these intelligence committee chiefs will be poised to ask about their views, about concerns about Russia and whether or not they're concerned that Russia may try to interfere in the 2018 midterms, and whether or not the country is taking adequate protections to ensure that what happened in 2016 does not happen in 2018.

So watch for this dividing line of sorts to play out between the president's intelligence chiefs and the president himself about that line that he's taking against Russia and whether or not they think the president is going -- taking a firm enough line. We'll see in just a matter of minutes here -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Manu Raju, stalking senators as they head into this very, very important hearing. Manu, thanks so much on that. The hearing begins in just moments. We will bring it to you live. But first, the White House insists that the president supports abuse victims, but we have not heard him say it. He's had multiple opportunities. He also has this thing called Twitter.

We're going to hear from Republican Senator Joni Ernst on what she makes of the administration's response next.

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[09:17:57]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. New this morning, the immigration debate set to begin in the Senate shortly. The president weighing in. He said this is the last chance to fix DACA before the March 5th deadline. That deadline actually doesn't exist until a court weighs in.

Joining me now, Senator Joni Ernst, Republican from Iowa. Senator, thanks for being with you. You were one of the sponsors of a bill which largely mirrors the White House framework, his so-called pillars on immigration. You support it because you say this will help the DREAMers like one who in your home state of Iowa who wanted to join the National Guard. Explain.

SENATOR JONI ERNST (R), IOWA: Absolutely. I met a young lady at the Clay County Fair in Iowa. She approached me and said she was a DACA recipient. We were standing by a National Guard recruiting booth. She said I had spoken to a recruiter a number of months ago and I was not able to sign up.

She said I love this country. I want to serve my country. This is the only country I have ever known known. I have a lot of respect for that young lady. I'd like to see her find her pathway to citizenship. If she can do that through the military, we want to help her with that.

BERMAN: Some Democrats, some Democrats say the problem with your proposal is the limits it puts on legal immigration, family reunification. You have to get to 60 votes. Anything is going to have to get to 60 votes in the Senate right now. Would you be able to make some concessions to Democrats on this in order to get to 60 votes?

ERNST: Thanks, John. And I do think we're at a very good starting point right now. We know that this will be an open debate process. Leader McConnell has promised that. So, we're at a good starting point. It mirrors what the White House has already proposed.

So, I'm OK with starting there. Maybe there will be concessions along the way, but I think what we have right now is a very good plan. I'd like to see that plan move forward.

BERMAN: So, Senator, when you were in college, you volunteered at a women's crisis center in Aims, Iowa.

[09:20:01] I've seen you quoted saying oftentimes I felt angry, frustrated and helpless, wishing there was more I could do to stop this from ever happening to them, to women again.

Given your own personal experience with this issue with battered women, how would you assess how the White House has handled the domestic abuse allegations against former key staffer, Rob Porter?

ERNST: Well, I'm not sure of the internal workings of the White House and when they found out what they found out. I'm extremely disappointed in this situation. Abuse is never OK. It is never OK and so, I feel very bad for those women.

I am glad that they have come forward and again, not understanding the internal dynamics of when was this discovered. We know that Rob Porter is now out of the picture. But I just want to reemphasize to everybody that abuse is never OK. We need to send a very clear signal that it won't be tolerated, and it won't be tolerated with our employees.

BERMAN: Is the president sending that signal? ERNST: I think he needs to send a stronger message, a stronger message. We need to allow women and men that have been abused to come out, make sure their stories are heard and believed.

BERMAN: He hasn't said enough yet, in other words.

ERNST: Yes, I'd like him to come out a little bit stronger on that.

BERMAN: We just learned moments ago that even after the photo of Colbie Holderness, who is Rob Porter's first wife was released with her having a black eye, even after that, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary set up an off the record briefing where Rob Porter could tell his version of the story, apparently justify that photo and other things to reporters. Your reaction to that?

ERNST: I think you can't justify it. You can't justify that.

BERMAN: And you believe the women?

ERNST: I do believe the women, yes, I do.

BERMAN: All right. Senator, I want to move on to another subject because you're very clear on this. I mean, just to be crystal clear here, you want to see more from the White House. Do you support a congressional investigation in any way to what happened?

ERNST: It is possible that that could be looked into. But how much time are we focusing on those employees, or should we be focusing on other things on a federal scale? We can raise this issue and talk about this issue and encourage awareness, but we also have national security issues going on that we really need to focus on.

We have North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, things that I'm also very passionate about that we need to focus on. We have a lot of spending issues, but obviously we do want to raise that awareness. But Congress does need to be focusing on the federal priorities as laid out by the Constitution.

BERMAN: There may be a national security issue here as well given that Rob Porter could not get a full security clearance, was working on a temporary one. You brought up federal spending. This is a good time to talk about the president's budget. I was looking at your Senate website.

You said we're already more than $20 trillion in debt. Our children and grandchildren deserve better than uncontrolled spending and more debt from Washington piled onto their future. So, given your stance on the debt and deficit, I assume you oppose the budget that the president released yesterday because it projects deficits going forward.

ERNST: Yes. We continue to look through that, sift through that information as the budget has been put out. We do want to see that budget balanced at some point. We're not seeing that clearly. Again, we'll continue sifting through the president's priorities. But again, it's up to Congress to make those determinations on how we move forward. The president is required to put out a budget, but it is up to Congress to set that budget and move forward.

BERMAN: All right. Senator Joni Ernst from Iowa, thank you for being with us this morning. Thank you for your candor on several different subjects.

ERNST: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Just minutes from now, the FBI director will be on CAPITOL HILL as his agency has faced scrutiny from both Republicans and the president. We have not heard him speak publicly about this in some time. So, this will be fascinating.

Plus, we're moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. It could be another wild day for the markets. Look at this. After yesterday where there are gains, today we see red down arrows. The market could be in for another down day. Stick around.

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[09:29:04]

BERMAN: You're looking at live pictures right now from Capitol Hill. This is the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. You'll hear from intelligence chiefs, three of whom have already testified, answered questions before the special counsel's team. Another, Christopher Wray, the FBI director in the middle of a swirl of Washington controversies right now.

Let us talk about what we're going to see. Dana Bash is back with me now. Manu Raju, Karoun Demirjian, and Josh Campbell, CNN law enforcement analyst, former FBI employee.

Josh, I want to start with you. The issue of Christopher Wray, the FBI director, who really has been in the middle of it the last several weeks in Washington on several issues. Let's start with the controversy surrounding the memo.

There's the Republican memo alleging FBI abuses in the Russia investigation, the Democratic memo that hasn't been released and the FBI under attack frankly. What does the director need to say in your mind about that as he sits here today?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Yes, you know, these hearings typically start out focusing on worldwide threats in general, but then, you know, quickly hone in on whatever the issue of the day is. Today, we have many issues of the day. I think first and foremost, as you mentioned, there are the memo --