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Porter Timeline; Talks Of Promoting Porter; U.S. Midterm Elections; Russia Meddling in 2018; Trump Won't Acknowledge Russia Meddling; Intel Chiefs Urged to Persuade Trump. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 13, 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 Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Digging deeper. The head of the FBI publicly contradicting the White House on the timeline of abuse allegations against one of the president's former top aides. New information in this escalating scandal.

Plus, as the president silent on domestic abuse victims, new CNN reporting that Rob Porter was in serious talks, actually, to be promoted over at the White House when he abruptly resigned, including a role, potentially, as deputy White House chief of staff.

New warning. America's intelligence chiefs making it crystal clear Russia is already meddling in the 2018 midterm elections here in the United States. And this time, the attacks will be, they say, even bolder.

But we start with the White House scandal seemingly out of control right now. More and more evidence mounting that the White House is not telling the truth on its handling of domestic abuse allegations against Rob Porter.

First, CNN has learned the FBI flagged the White House with serious concerns about Porter nearly a year ago. Despite this, CNN has also learned that porter was in serious talks about a promotion, possibly to deputy chief of staff to the president, right before the scandal blew up in recent days.

On top of all of this, the FBI director is publicly setting the record straight on when the White House knew they had a serious problem with Porter.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, DIRECTOR, FBI: The FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March and then a completed background investigation in late July.

That, soon thereafter, we received requests for follow-up inquiry. And we did the follow-up and provided that information in November and then we administratively closed the file in January.

And then, earlier this month, we received some additional information and we passed that on as well.


BLITZER: CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us from the White House right now.

Clearly, the White House officials there, they're struggling with this scandal and their response so far. What else are you learning, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are, indeed. And that testimony there, from the director of the FBI, was in response to a question from Senator Ron Wyden. And, initially, the FBI director said, no, I can't go into specifics.

And, indeed, he did not go into specifics about what was in the background check. But the fact that he pointed out that timeline there simply has contradicted everything the White House has been saying for nearly a week, Wolf.

By the FBI director saying that in March the -- a partial review was done. By July, it was entirely done, saying, again, more information came in November and then in January it was closed.

Absolutely directly contradicts what the White House spokesman, Raj Shah, said from the podium last Thursday that it, in fact, was not complete.

But we are also learning, as you said, Wolf, that he was -- Rob Porter was being eyed for a promotion. He was viewed very favorably and strongly by people here in the west wing, particularly John Kelly.

And it is the -- really, the fallout from that that is now raising questions here at the White House, if the chief of staff will be able to survive this.

We've not yet had a comment from the White House specifically on this contradiction.

Of course, the White House press briefing is scheduled to happen in the next hour, so this is certainly one of the questions, the central story line, that will be reviewed, once again. But we do not know exactly what the White House is going to say to try and put this all back in the bottle.

We also learned today, Wolf, that the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, invited reporters into her office after that photograph of the black and blue eye was released of Rob Porter's first wife. This, again, contradicts and complicates the story the White House has been saying.

So, Wolf, we are a week into this, you know, what should be a resignation and move on. But this White House has struggled every day with new information here, in one weekend, even more questions this afternoon, about what they knew and why nothing was done to bring attention to this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And further on this issue. The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, told "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday when he was asked about the Rob Porter situation, if the White House should have handled it any differently? He said, no, it was done right.

So, they're, clearly, sort of, sticking up to what they said.

[13:05:00] But, today, the FBI Director, Christopher Wray, he publicly, dramatically disputed the White House timeline.

ZELENY: He did, indeed, Wolf. And that quote there from the chief of staff to "The Wallstreet Journal," it was done right. It simply complicates this matter, once again, for the chief of staff, John Kelly.

So, as we set forth this afternoon, the questions are, who here at the White House knew about the FBI background check? Was it Don McGahn, the White House counsel? Was it the chief of staff?

Of course, he would not have been in place in March. He was still the director of Homeland Security then. But he certainly would have been by July.

But, Wolf, that is one of the questions here. There has been a revolving door inside this west wing of chiefs of staff, other advisers coming and going.

So, there are aides here I'm talking to who believe that that is one of the reasons this may have slipped through the cracks somewhat. Because John Kelly was just getting his footing as chief of staff.

That does not, however, explain by the end of the year, indeed earlier in the year in January, how Rob Porter could have been considered for a promotion when all of this was well known -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, thanks very much for that. Jeff Zeleny --


BLITZER: -- at the White House.

Let's bring in our panel. Our Military and Diplomatic Analyst John Kirby is with us, our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

Gloria, this is a huge embarrassment for the White House today. The fact that the FBI director, together with the other leaders of the U.S. intelligence community. On this issue, the FBI director completely disputed what the White House has been saying over the past week.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It makes you wonder, what were they thinking? They knew that the FBI director was going to come and testify today. And I don't think they should have assumed that the FBI director was going to do anything other than defend his agency and their security clearance process and come with a timeline of his own.

The problem now for the White House is compounded here because his timeline is different from theirs. He makes it very clear that at least by the fall, at least by the fall, that there was knowledge in the White House about this.

And I think the question that Jeff Zeleny raises is the right question which is, who knew what when? When did Don McGahn know? Did Don McGahn go to Kelly? Did Don McGahn keep this to himself?

We need to hear a little bit about what the White House counsel knew because, don't forget, he was the -- also the one who got a phone call from the girlfriend of Rob Porter recently. And where did the information from that phone call go as they were thinking of promoting Rob Porter?

BLITZER: And that's pretty shocking, despite all this information that was coming in from the FBI to the White House, despite the fact that he wasn't getting full, permanent security clearances at the highest level which you need for their job.

They were actually thinking of promoting him, Dana, to deputy White House chief of staff.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, we have to remember the context here. I'm, by no means, making excuses but trying to explain what is going on which is there -- the way John Kelly saw it, there were very few people around him who were competent and capable at doing their jobs to put out -- to help Kelly put out the umpteen fires that he had every day.

The problem is that it seems as though he took that, and that, frankly, desperation and necessity, and he swept other things under the rug.

And I think, at the end of the day, what we have to remember is that the FBI director, what he testified today completely blows up what many people in the White House, I am told, who worked for John Kelly, consider a cover-up. A cover-up that he perpetuated that allowed this guy to stay in his job.

That was a bad H.R. move, a bad national security move and a bad political move.

Now, he, again -- you were saying that he spoke to "The Wallstreet Journal." Kelly insisted that he handled it well. But that really flies in the face to what we now have under public testimony from the FBI director.

And I would just also add that the next time the White House decides that part of their defense should be throwing the FBI under the bus, which is what they tried to do yesterday, to say it's not the White House that deals with security clearances. It's the FBI. When that's just not actually true. They should probably think twice about it.

BLITZER: Yes, and when they sent the press secretary out to make a statement that, clearly, is -- you'll believe the FBI director, Christopher Wray, is not correct.

Sarah Sanders, the Press Secretary, said the White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check. That's what she said yesterday.

But Christopher Wray said back in July they completed it. Then, they sent another completion in January. They had completed their information. The FBI was sending that information to the White House, and the White House had to make a decision what to do with Rob Porter.

[13:10:00] REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, I mean, she's not just dancing on the head of a pin. She's just wrong. I mean, and Christopher Wray made that very clear today. They were finished.

And here's the other thing, Wolf. I mean, if you listen to what he said, all this back and forth, they -- this wasn't just, hey, we're done. Here you go.

Over the course of many months, they were going back and forth with the White House, answering questions or providing additional context.

And you have to remember, Wolf, that an interim clearance doesn't just mean you have temporary clearance to observe some material. It means, in fact, that you do not have the right to have a final clearance. You are not there yet.

And so, with all this back and forth, you would have thought somebody in the White House personnel would say, hey, look, we need to ratchet back the responsibilities that this man has or limit his access, at least a little bit, until we get through all those hoops.

BORGER: Well, and also, Wray pointed out that the FBI received a request for a follow-up. Who made that request?

KIRBY: Exactly.

BORGER: I want to know. Who made that request which they completed and provided in November?


BORGER: Who made that request? Because the person who requested a follow-up knew something was cooking.

BASH: And all the while, Rob Porter had access to the country's secrets.

BORGER: Exactly.

BASH: He was getting 180-day extension after extension. And, you know, Josh Campbell, who used to work at the FBI and is now working here, said, you know, I spent my whole life trying to protect America's secrets. And here's this guy who's working in the Oval Office potentially undermining all of that.

BLITZER: You know, you were the spokesman at the Pentagon. You were the spokesman over at the State Department. You're a retired rear admiral.

If they give you information to brief reporters and the American public on which is clearly incorrect. You go out there and brief them, and then you discover that it's incorrect. Sarah Sanders, yesterday, said that the White House had not -- had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of the background check. That was incorrect.

She is about to appear, in the next hour or so, before reporters once again. Does she come out -- if it were you and you were given bad information by your bosses and you uttered those words, would you apologize? Would you try and correct it? Would you say, you know what? I made a mistake. They gave me bad information. How do you handle that, if you're Sarah Sanders? Because she was, clearly, --


BLITZER: -- given that information. She was reading it, basically, and she uttered those words.

KIRBY: If it was me, the first thing I'd say out of my mouth today at the podium would be, look, I made a mistake yesterday. Here's what's really happening. You have to correct the record.

And I -- look, I had to do that from time to time. I never, ever, not at the Pentagon and not at the State, was ever sent to the podium deliberately to mislead. And nobody ever asked me to say anything that I wasn't comfortable saying of that didn't comport with the truth.

But there were times when I made mistakes. And as soon as you do that, you have an obligation, as a spokesman, on the record, on camera, to go out and say, you know what? I messed up. Here's the truth.

BORGER: And can I say one more thing about the president? Not only has the president not come up -- come out and talked about these women. But he hasn't come out and said, I want to get to the bottom of this.

I want to know why this person, who was going to get no security clearance, who, allegedly, you know, abused women, what he was doing in my inner circle and in my Oval Office every day, when he could be subject to blackmail?

I mean, if I were the president of the United States, I'd be pretty upset about this breach, this security breach, inside my Oval Office. Not to mention the fact that people were out there and supporting somebody who had abused his ex-wives. BLITZER: Yes, you would think the president would order some internal

investigation to determine what happened, to learn from it to make sure it doesn't happen again.

And we still are waiting for the president to say that he expresses his sympathy to these women who these -- who made these allegations against Rob Porter. We'll see if he does that in the course of today. He's got plenty of opportunity, as we all know.

Everybody stick around. There's a lot of breaking news we're following from this dramatic Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today. The U.S. intelligence chiefs, all of them, saying the United States, right now, is under a cyber-attack. That Russia is already targeting the 2018 midterm elections here in the U.S. Their dire warning, that's coming up.

Plus, the FBI director responding to questions about the president's attacks against his agency and whether the FBI is biased.

Stand by. We have a lot more. This is CNN's special, live coverage.



[13:18:25] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: North Korea won't negotiate its nuclear weapons away. Russia will step up its effort to meddle in the U.S. elections. Those are just two of the major threats that the nation's FBI and intelligence leaders are warning about today. The director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, told the Senate Intelligence Committee this about Russia.


DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States. There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.


BLITZER: Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill watching today's developments, the worldwide threats hearing.

Manu, you heard Director Coats warning that the risk of global conflict is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Some of the other major threats that were identified before the panel included what?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they also raised serious concerns about North Korea, the threat that it poses to the United States. Every day the United States, they're raising concerns about North Korea's nuclear capability.

But one of the big concerns, Wolf, coming out of that hearing is whether or not the United States is taking enough steps to deal with the Russian activity here in the United States, the Russia activity that's already occurring in the 2018 midterm election.

[13:20:06] There is members of this panel came out, I talked to afterwards, said that there's clearly not a strategy by the administration to deal with both cyber security and the Russian interference that is already taking place.

Now, one area in which this was highlighted during this hearing was the interaction between Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and the members of the intelligence community about whether the president has personally directed any of them to take steps to prevent Russia from doing in 2018 what they did in 2016.


SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: Has the president directed you and your agency to take specific actions to confront and blunt Russian influence activities that are ongoing?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: We're taking a lot of specific efforts to blunt Russian efforts --

REED: Are they directed by the president?

WRAY: Not as specifically directed by the president.

REED: OK. Director Pompeo, have you received a specific presidential direction to take steps to disrupt these activities?

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: I'm not sure how specific --

REED: Could you --

POMPEO: I'm sorry. I'm not sure how specific --


RAJU: Now, Wolf, he went on to say that the president has directed them to be aware of a range of threats, including Russia, but not answering that question directly.

But, Wolf, one thing that the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Burr, did make very clear, is that his committee plans to release a report as soon as next month about election security, things that need to be done because there are concerns that there's just not enough that is being done by the administration right now to protect against Russian interference in this year's midterm that is clearly identified here in this -- today's hearing, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thanks very much.

Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill. The nation's FBI and intelligence chiefs all agree on this. Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election here in the United States and they're already targeting the 2018 midterm elections.

Senator Angus King of Maine says the panel needs to convince President Trump to accept those findings.


SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: My problem is, I talk to people in Maine who say the whole thing is a witch hunt and it's a hoax because the president told me. I just wish you all could persuade the president, as a matter of national security, to separate these two issues. The collusion issue is over here unresolved. We'll get to the bottom of that. But there's no doubt, as you all have testified today, and we cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, with the whole of government response when the leader of the government continues to deny that it exists.

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in -- back our panel for some perspective.

Gloria, why is the president so silent on this? All of his intelligence chiefs agree Russia meddled, they're still meddling. He didn't mention it at all in the State of the Union Address. All of these intelligence chiefs, they basically said what James Clapper said before he left, the director of Nation Intelligence, what the CIA director, John Brennan, said before he retired. All of them are on the same page. They're all saying this is a major national security threat to the United States, except one person doesn't say it. That's the president.


Well, there are two things here. First of all, the president still believes that this is the way to try and delegitimize his election. And you can't get past that speed bump there with the president because he sees the Russian influencing the election meaning that he shouldn't have been elected. And there's just no way to get around that. Even if you give him that premise and say, let's assume you would have been elected anyway, and that's probably the case, let's just get over that and talk about this, fine.

The other-- and he won't -- he won't go there.

The other point is, which has been told to me over this past year by source after source, is that the president believes that this is just the way states conduct business and that we spy on them and they spy on us. We try to influence them and they try to influence us. So he believes that this is nothing new under the sun. This is according to people who speak with him. Those are the two simplest reasons I can come up with. Neither of them are good, by the way.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question. And I think that -- and, you know, we've done a lot of reporting on this, and you in particular, the first part of what you just described. The fact that any talk of Russian interference -- not collusion -- Russian interference questions the legitimacy of his presidency.

But can you just -- can we just take a step back for a second and look at the fact that an independent -- he caucuses with the Democrats -- but an independent senator had to sit at an open intelligence committee and plead with the leaders of the intelligence community to do something to convince the president of the United States that Russian interference in 2016 was real --

BORGER: Right.

[13:25:11] BASH: And, more importantly, they're at it and they're going to do it in this election, in 2018 and beyond. And at the end of the day, if the president doesn't believe it, if the president doesn't direct a policy to deal with it, it's not going to be done in an aggressive and legitimate way.


BLITZER: These are men, by the way, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, the new FBI director, relatively speaking, Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, guess who named them to those positions?

BASH: Yes, exactly.


BLITZER: President Trump.

KIRBY: Yes, absolutely. But just to pick up on what Dana was saying. I mean just as critically, if the president can't say these things and won't believe them, then people that vote for him, his followers, his base, will not. And that means, Wolf, that they are just as susceptible to Russian meddling and interference and information operations as they were in 2016. They're just going to be as vulnerable. Not everything the Russians are doing are in cyberspace. Some of it is right in your nose, it's right through social media or even conventional media. They are very good at this and they're not going to stop. So it really is important, narrative wise, for the president to not only say it and believe it, but to make sure his base believes it.

BORGER: Well, like most things, he sees it personally. He just -- he thinks this whole issue of Russian spying is about him.


BORGER: And it's about, you know, him election. And rather than taking the wider view, which one would assume a president would take, about how they're trying to undermine democracy, period.

BLITZER: And he said, in that clip -- I don't have it right now, but remember that famous clip, he said, well, Putin denied it, that he was --


BLITZER: You know, pretty serious when he denied it to me, repeatedly denied it. Repeatedly, you know --

BASH: The happiest person on a day-to-day basis on this planet is Vladimir Putin.


BASH: I mean watching every single day, but particularly a hearing like this where you have these guys saying, oh, the president doesn't really believe it, I mean this is exactly what they wanted.

BLITZER: And you heard these -- these leaders of the intelligence community say they were not instructed by the president to do anything about it, specifically by the president.


BLITZER: That's pretty damaging.

Everybody stand by.

There's more breaking news. We're following the scandal enveloping the White House. The FBI director, moments ago, contradicting the White House's timeline on Rob Porter. We're also now learning the West Wing knew about the abuse allegations against Porter for nearly a year.

Also, it begins. The Senate starting the debate on the fate of dreamers, but Republicans suddenly shrinking the timeline. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, he's standing by live. We'll discuss. There he is.