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INSIDE POLITICS

Porter Ex-Wives Say White House Has Not Reached Out; Trump Meets With Lawmakers to Discuss Trade; Long Promised Immigration Debate Set to Begin in Senate; White House Arranged Off-The-Record Meeting With Porter and Four Reporters. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 13, 2018 - 12:30   ET

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


[12:30:02] ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: -- privately and has difficulty in expressing these things publicly. I think people by now know that the president sometimes gives inconsistent messages and it does seem like it would be difficult for that to cause too much harm.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Their voices have been fascinating, and I think they deserve to be followed more than other witnesses, if you will, more than other testimony in this conversation. The two ex- wives of Rob Porter who make this case, and Jenny Willoughby, one of the ex-wives, told Anderson Cooper last week that she worries about Hope Hicks, the White House communications director who at least last was as of last week, in a relationship with Rob Porter. I don't know if there's any change in that relationship.

She said she worry about Hope Hicks. Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, she was on State of the Union in Sunday with Jake Tapper, and said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: In the case of Hope, I've rarely met somebody so strong with such excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And so Porter's first ex-wife took offense with that. She wrote in the Washington Post, "Conway's statement implies that those who have been in abusive relationships are not strong. I beg to differ. 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. While I cannot say I'm surprised, I expected a woman to do better."

So essentially challenging those closest to the president if you think twice or -- and I thought for the -- in the full context, to be fair to Kellyanne, the full context to that interview she was condemning abuse, she was -- you know, if you look at the full context of it. But this particular part, we're in the middle of another interesting debate.

DARLENE SUPERVILE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: It is interesting. I wouldn't want to get into sort of saying whether Kellyanne was right or wrong to say what she said about that, but there is plenty of evidence, anecdotal, and otherwise, that domestic abuse situations, even women who are strong in other areas of their lives, they do fall victim to that sort of thing.

KING: And it's been interesting. Phil, you mentioned your conversations on the Hill earlier today. Joni Ernst, Republican senator from Iowa, someone who tries to steer clear out of the White House messes, if you will, just wants to stay on her line, do her business on Capitol Hill.

She was on CNN this morning and Republicans are watching this and they think, number one, why was Rob Porter kept on the job so long? Number two, why can't the White House get its stories straight? And number three, and I want to make it clear, the conduct first, but number three, this is a midterm election year. The Republican Party is nervous about all of this. Listen to the senator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JONI ERNST (R), IOWA: Well, I'm not sure of the internal workings of the White House and when they found out what they found out. But I am extremely disappointed in this situation. Abuse is never OK. And we need to send a very clear signal that it won't be tolerated, and it won't be tolerated with our employees.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Is the president sending that signal?

ERNST: I think he needs to send a stronger message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Again, not someone who rushes to the camera to send a message to the White House, but she was saying her thoughts there.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not someone who rushes to the camera. She picks her spot and she's very well likely regarded on Capitol Hill, but Senator Ernst is not somebody who's coming out to bash anybody ever unless it's on issue that's very specific. She's reflecting what you're hearing from a lot of people.

There's lot of frustration with the process, no question about it. The politics, certainly they're worried about where women are going to come down, anyway, in 2018. But I think the biggest issue is why are you dithering on this issue.

This is not something you dither on. Domestic abuse, domestic disputes, we get that you like the guy. We get that he held a prominent role in the office, and a lot of people respected him, respected his resume, respected everything he brought to the table.

Everything that they've seen over the course of the last week makes it very clear that this -- it shouldn't have been something that took time or that took multiple defenses or that took 15 different explanations. This should have been handled and very quick, and I think all of them run their own offices. And understand that when you're running an office, however large is it, whether it's the Senate staff or whether it's the White House, you see something like this and you deal with it immediately and quickly, and that wasn't what happened here.

And I think that's what you heard from Senator Ernst and that's what you're hearing from a lot of people right now.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO! NEWS: You could clip those answer to that question and apply it to I think a couple dozen Trump-related scandals over the past three years. You know, why is he fighting with a Gold Star family? Why is he saying that a Mexican-American judge can't do justice?

Why is he doing -- they keep asking these questions on the Hill. I mean, this is a practically good week for text that involved a link to a story and just, OMG, that's what we heard from Republican aides.

But you can apply this same problem across the Trump presidency. They get really frustrated up there and they do exactly what Joni Ernst just did and it doesn't seem to have an impact.

KING: As you were noting during our last break, a lot of Republicans says that's why he fired Michael Flynn which was one year ago.

KNOX: One year ago.

KING: I thought that is hard to believe. That is hard to believe.

Coming up, different political stories. Is he in or is he out? Senator Bob Corker may be rethinking his decision to call it quits.

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[12:39:02] KING: Time to check some of the other stories on our political radar today.

The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the Trump administration's actions have, quote, disqualified America from being the Middle East peace broker. Just one quote there from a scathing New York Times op-ed in which Erekat also slams the Jerusalem embassy move and other examples of what he calls a Trump bias and in favor of Israel.

President Trump recently told an Israeli newspaper he's not sure either side ready now to make peace.

The Republican National Committee is keeping their $375,000 in donations it received from Steve Wynn until state regulations finish their investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against the casino mogul. This -- you might remember this, this despite the RNC (INAUDIBLE) for Democrats back when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. The RNC then demanded that Democrats immediately return any money they got from him.

Senator Bob Corker thinking again about his decision to retire. That's according to a CNN source who says the two-term Republican from Tennessee is being pressed by a number of Republican colleagues to run again.

[12:40:02] We first reported this on Sunday morning. Our Manu Raju pressed the senator three times last night asking, are you changing your mind? The senator's reply, quote, I don't have anything to say. That means he's thinking about it.

It's immigration week in the U.S., Senate leaders promising a free for all in the hunt for a plan that can get 60 votes.

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KING: This is moments ago at the White House, President Trump meeting with bipartisan members of Congress to talk about trade. Let's listen.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're discussing it for years, and certainly discussed it very in great detail on the campaign trail that America's aluminum and steel industries and many other industries where we are taken advantage of by other countries. And I alluded to it yesterday, too.

Last year I directed the secretary of commerce to investigate whether steel and aluminum imports are threatening to impair U.S. national security.

[12:45:04] Do you see what's happened with our steel and aluminum industries? They're being decimated by dumping and from many countries, in particular one, but many countries. They're dumping and destroying our industry and destroying the families of workers, and we can't let that happen.

Secretary Ross submitted the results of the investigation to me last month. My administration is now reviewing the reports and considering all options.

And part of the options would be tariffs coming in. As they dump steel, they pay tariffs, substantial tariffs which mean the United States would actually make a lot of money. And probably our steel industry and aluminum industry would come back into our country. Right now it's decimated.

It will make a decision and I will make a decision that reflects the best interests of the United States, including the need to address overproduction in China and other countries. You have countries that are so overproducing, and what they're doing is they're dumping it on us. And you look at empty factories, steel factories and plants, and it's a very sad thing to look at. I've been looking at them for two years as I went around campaigning.

No matter where you go, you look at them and see what happened to U.S. steel and these other companies. They were the giants and now they're hanging on for their life.

I look forward to hearing your views and I'd like to have some of you speak, and you have very strong -- I know, Roy, you do, and we all do, probably, have pretty strong views on this. I look at it two ways. I want to keep prices down but I also want to make sure we have a steel industry and an aluminum industry, and we do need that national defense.

If we ever have a conflict, we don't want to be buying the steel from the country that we're fighting, because somehow that doesn't work very well. But we hopefully won't have any conflicts but we still have to consider that and we have to look at the national defense. And we have to look at the steel industry.

We cannot be without a steel industry. We can't be without an aluminum industry. And so what we're talking about is tariffs and/or quotas.

And I think maybe, Roy, would you like to start? We discussed this over the past. Do you have any suggestions?

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: Well, Mr. President, I think we do need to be careful here that we don't start a reciprocal battle on tariffs. You know, we make aluminum and we make steel in Missouri, but we buy a lot of aluminum and we buy a lot of steel as well from bass boats to beer cans.

KING: You're listening to Senator Roy Blunt, Republican in Missouri talking to the president there. There's a big trade round table at the Trump White House. The president bringing in Democrats and Republicans to talk about what he has long promised, tougher trade tactics against what the president, candidate Trump, President Trump practices repeatedly rallies against unfair trade practices around the world.

Roy Blunt of Missouri there talking specifically about the issue of steel and aluminum. This has been -- this is one of the reasons Donald Trump is president, in my view. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, talking about trade practices, sounding a lot like Bernie Sanders, not like George W. Bush or Mitt Romney. Not a traditional Republican on trade during the election.

And yet, here we are 13 months into the administration. One of my big questions is, when is he going to stop talking and start doing in the sense that he hasn't labeled China a currency manipulator. They're still in this long process saying they're going to re-negotiate NAFTA with Mexico and with Canada.

Or on the other side, if you want to come away from the confrontational issues, he said he's going to negotiate new unilateral trade agreements, bilateral trade agreements now with the U.K. as it pulls out of Brexit for example. Just the other day he criticized the U.S.-South Korea trade deal.

So he talks about this a lot. Where are the actionables?

JOHNSON: Well, it's interesting, you know, in steel and aluminum in particular, the president at the beginning in the year got back a report about their trade practices and about dumping which means those countries emptying their access, stealing aluminum into the U.S. and distorting the markets. He had, from the beginning of January, 90 days to decide what he was going to do about that. And Republican members of the Senate, you heard some of them talking, are petrified that he's going to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and many U.S. companies are petrified.

So, I think some of what's going on behind the scenes are Republican senators, and Democratic senators, reaching out to the White House to say, please don't crack down. He has already cracked down on solar, washing machines.

They're hoping maybe that will be enough and that the president will lay off. But as you mentioned, he hasn't acted on all these other realms and I think he's inclined to do something.

KING: His reflexes certainly there. We haven't seen that since (INAUDIBLE). As the president has this meeting, I want to move on to the issue that is now being debated on the floor of the United States Senate in a way that most of us never get to see. A free-flowing, let's bring an issue to the floor of the United States Senate, it's not even an actual bill. There is no agreement on how many days, how many times they do this.

Phil Mattingly, the goal is a deal that protects the Dreamers and the Democrats know to get that, they have to give up something, border wall funding and probably something else.

[12:50:07] Originally, this was going to be, we'll start and we'll finish it when we finish. Now you're hear from the Republican leadership, it seems to be, let's try to do this week. Is that firm?

MATTINGLY: It is now, and we'll see how much is a negotiating tactic as much as anything else. Look, this debate hasn't gotten off to a great start. They are currently fighting right now over process and procedure. Republicans have queued up a series of messaging amendments that NRSC would love to have on the floor related to sanctuary cities or Kate's Law and things of that nature, and Democrats were saying this has nothing to do with DACA.

So they're literally fighting right now about what amendments might actually might come up, which is, frankly, a normal Senate as opposed to the one we are expecting this week.

Look, I think the real question now is, is there a sweet spot, right? You have the Cotton-Grassley-Cornyn plan that kind of puts legislative (INAUDIBLE) to the White House for pillars. You have, you know, some of the things that Senator Durbin wants to do which clearly falls short of what the White House wants.

Neither of those things can get 60 votes right now. Is there something in the middle that can get there? Here's I think the big dynamic.

If the Democrats want a pathway to citizenship, it's not going to be just for a wall. Republicans say, if you want pathway you have to add family migration. Democrats say we're not willing to do family migration. So it's the sweet spot there that you do legal status instead of pathway and for the wall, and maybe that's the deal or something like that. That proposal doesn't exist yet. Do they end up there or did they scale back to a bare bones proposal? I think that's open for debate but I think the reality is, there's no 60 votes for a fulsome proposal yet.

KING: And do they think that the White House watch the Senate. Is the strategy at the White House just watch the Senate, see where this goes? Or is that at some point -- the president tweeted this morning, I'd like a deal, everyone should be involved but it was pretty benign.

Let's just have a deal, let's get involved reminding him it's not a real deadline, March 5th. But do they -- is the idea -- if the president's going to get involved here and put in his fingerprints and try to pull the House Republicans with him, is that a sooner or later calculation?

SUPERVILE: I think it's a later calculation.

KING: See what the Senate can do first?

SUPERVILE: See what the Senate can do first.

KING: Yes, the Senate can do first.

SUPERVILE: See if the Senate can do something. See what they do, and see where it goes and then try to decide whether to step in or not or give cover to some of the Republicans in the House on this issue.

KNOX: Yes, I think that's right. Will policy staff get involved in the process if they're not already involved in the process? But I don't think the president is going to -- I mean, apart from the obvious tweeting, I don't think the president is going to start picking up the phone and start calling people yet.

Number one, they got tax reform and Paul Ryan came out and thanked the president for his leadership and then on subsequent interview said that that leadership was basically staying out kind of want to replicate it here.

KING: I want to shift subjects just a little bit because there's a new information. It's another wrinkle in how the White House has handled the abuse accusation surrounding former staff secretary, top White House aide Rob Porter.

The White House chief of staff, in a brief interview with the Wall Street Journal says, "Everything was handled as it should have been." Asked on Monday if the White House should have handled the Porter situation any differently, Chief of Staff John Kelly said, quote, no. It was all done right.

Mr. Kelly said that in a brief interview. Really?

JOHNSON: Once again, I think that message contradicts what the White House Communications Office came out and said, which was, we could have all done better over the last few days.

And I think one of the things we've noticed about Kelly not just in this situation was, but before is that, he's a bit politically tone deaf. And I think he would have been better served just to come out and say, you know, as the press secretary have said we all could have done better here.

But, instead he's digging in his heels. We saw him do that with Frederica Wilson, the Florida congresswoman disputing here. But not a guy with a political background and I think we're seeing that weakness play out in this situation.

KING: Right. And not a guy with a political background but a guy who is stubborn. Our Kaitlan Collins had some reporting on this as well who was talking to Rob Porter at the time all of this exploded at the White House about an expansion of his responsibilities, maybe becoming a deputy chief of staff, maybe taking on some other role.

But this is why he was brought in. It's his personal involvement and I guess my question is, is his personal involvement clouding his judgment or his ability to hit the brakes, take a breath, call everybody in, actually create a timeline that can withstand scrutiny, lay all this out so that they can try to turn a page when they know the president is mad that this has now dominated the headlines for a week.

KNOX: The White House to do that really as a last resort a lot of the time.

KING: Will it be a first resort?

KNOX: Well, I'm not going to give communication advices to the White House but, I mean, I've gone through this on a few other issues where, for a while there, they're in that hole and they keep digging. And then someone somewhere on the machine says, you know, or we could drop the shovel and maybe not do this and then they pull reporters in for background briefings.

They tried that here. They do -- apparently did that little off the record with a couple reporters. From those reporters' coverage, I could say it didn't work.

But they did this as a last resort. You know, we had things like the 16 words in the state of the union for George W. Bush where eventually they explained what happened.

When John Brennan screwed up to what happened in the Bin Laden raid, they eventually had to sit down and explain what happened.

[12:55:03] This happens I think on a pretty regular basis but they'll only do this after they've exhausted every other avenue.

KING: You mentioned that at the record meeting, worry that we find out about them. But this is in your reporting today.

They called in four White House reporters with Rob Porter in the room. He was trying to explain this away. Sarah Huckabee Sanders arranged this, am I correct about this?

JOHNSON: Yes, the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders arranged a meeting with four influential national reporters. But this was hours after the photo of Porter's first wife had emerged with a bruised eye. And I noted that it was inconsistent with the White House's timeline, with John Kelly's timeline of having to move to get rid of Porter 40 minutes after that photo had emerged or taken swift action. And my reporting was really meant to question the White House timeline.

I would note two things. First that, we don't know if Kelly knew that this meeting was taking place. And second, that it was meant to reflect on the White House's timeline and not on the participation of those reporters in the meeting.

KING: And yet, to that point, you point out they still have not a week later (INAUDIBLE) and the chief of staff said everything was handled just right.

We'll be on this one for a few more days at least I think.

Thanks for joining us here in the INSIDE POLITICS. A lot of curve balls today. Thanks for being with us. See you back here tomorrow.

Wolf Blitzer is in the chair after a quick break.

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