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House Oversight Investigating WH Handling of Rob Porter; Trump Lawyer Claims he Paid $130k of Own Money to Porn Star; House GOP Leaders hold Press Conference. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone, I'm John Berman.

There is breaking news this morning. There's now a Congressional investigation into how the White House handled the Rob Porter controversy. He was the aide to the president who was either fired or resigned after domestic abuse allegations. The chairman of the House Oversight Committee decided to break the news just a short time ago right here on CNN.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), CHAIRMAN, OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE: Who knew what when and to what extent? And if you knew it in 2017, and the bureau briefed them three times, then how in the hell was he still employed?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Will the Oversight Committee be launching an investigation into this?

GOWDY: We did last night.


BERMAN: We did last night. We'll talk about what that might look like in a little bit. You're looking at live pictures right now from Capitol Hill. Just moments from now we will hear from House leadership, Republican House leadership. They will face questions about how they will handle this investigation. They will face questions about the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and one of the people answering questions here is on the short list of possible replacements for Chief of Staff John Kelly, the current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, how is he going to handle this, not to mention Paul Ryan. We're watching that very closely.

Let's begin though at the White House with CNN story breaking machine Kaitlan Collins is there. Kaitlan, what are you learning this morning?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, John, that's a very significant comment that we just heard from Trey Gowdy about this Rob Porter scandal. He was raising a lot of questions not just about how Rob Porter was working in this White House with classified information but how anyone with those kind of credible allegations in their past had a job anywhere, especially one in the West Wing. So, he's raising a lot of questions that reporters have been asking of the White House for the last week or so, a lot of questions that we have not gotten answers to or gotten conflicting answers to.

And the person who is taking a lot of heat for that is the Chief of Staff John Kelly, because a lot of aides inside the White House believe that he is really bungled the response here to the Rob Porter scandal, to the fallout here, not only has he said we could have done a better job like some White House spokesmen have said. He said that he would not change the way that they've handled this. So, of course, when a lot of heat is on the Chief of Staff there's obvious talk of who would replace him if it came down to that. We know this is a president who often polls his friends and his associates who they think would do a good job in that position in Chief of Staff.

But John, to give a sense of how much we're still very much in the trial balloon phase of this last night, one of the names being thrown around is a potential successor to John Kelly is Gary Cohn, the president's chief economic adviser. But to show how much this is still very much in the early phases, a source who spoke to the president last night said that he asked where is all of this Gary Cohn stuff coming from. So, we have a list of short list of successors, Kevin McCarthy is on that list, Gary Cohn, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney as well. But this is very much in the early phases that I need to point that the White House this morning is expressing confidence in the Chief of Staff John Kelly as of today, John.

BERMAN: Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Gary Cohn -- I'm old enough to remember when there was speculation about when the president was going to fire Gary Cohn. It was like two months ago. That's why I'm old enough. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks so much.

I want to get to Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill where we will hear from congressional leaders very shortly. Sunlen, what are you hearing?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it will certainly be interesting today, John, at that press conference that will take place in just a few minutes to see how Republican leaders handle all of these questions. As you noted before, Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader up there at the podium in just a few minutes. His name has of course been banding about a potential successor potentially to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. So, it will be interesting to see how he handles that question.

Obviously many Republicans up here on Capitol Hill, this week has just been peppered with questions about the White House handling of the scandal. And so many of them have been outspoken, saying, many said that they've handled it poorly, that they've been -- made some errors in their communication, that their response hasn't been consistent and certainly some Republicans are starting to say that President Trump should be taking a greater role in this, should be really taking hold of this scandal, maybe speaking out more forcefully against domestic violence, speaking out in favor of the women who have come forward to tell their stories.

[10:05:02] And as Kaitlan said there, Trey Gowdy, House Oversight Committee, saying that as of last night they have launched an investigation to look into how the White House handled this. Of course, John, we'll hear very shortly from these Republican leaders more of what they have to say.

BERMAN: All right, Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill. Again, live pictures right there, we'll bring you the statements and certainly the questions and answers when they happen. Part of this is a communications issue, how the White House has chosen to communicate what they see as the facts about what happened here.

So, joining me now, two experts on communicating and communications, Trent Duffy, former deputy White House press secretary under President George W. Bush and Paul Begala, CNN political commentator, former counselor to President Clinton. And Paul, we heard something yesterday from the White House press secretary, several times. I'm going to play you one iteration of it, but it's a type of thing I do not remember hearing before. This is Sarah Sanders.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The press team is not going to be as read and they'd be some other elements given moment on a variety of topics but we relay the best and most accurate information that we have.


BERMAN: We might not be telling you the truth. Is it odd statement from a press secretary?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What she's saying, they may not be telling me the truth. The term read in comes from the national security apparatus. There are some security things we don't want the press secretary briefed on, the plan to kill Bid Laden. I'm quite sure the Obama press secretary wasn't read-in on that nor he should he had been.

This is different. They are not telling Mrs. Sanders the truth. She's not telling us the truth. My advice -- serious advice, not as a partisan, stop changing your story, start changing the subject. The president has great capacity here. He can do a lot to get on the right side of this issue.

First, hold people accountable, which means General Kelly, fire him. Maybe Don McGahn the White House counsel. But then replace them with strong women. Then there are staff positions he's never filled, there's an office in the White House on violence against women, he's never fulfilled it, never filled it. There's an office in the State Department, ambassador at large for women's issues, he's never filled it. There's an office in the Justice Department on violence against women, he's never filled it. You have a president with five new women you're bringing on to your team, you have completely changed the discussion and he needs to get out in front of this with actions not just communications.

BERMAN: You know, Trent Duffy, communicate him out of this today. What can the president do today? Paul brings up a scenario here, you know, which could happen, I suppose, over a period of time, but the president has a public event in an hour right now. What does he say? Again, he signs legislation dealing with sexual abuse against women un-ironically this afternoon. So, what does he do?

TRENT DUFFY, FORMER DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY UNDER PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, he has got to own up the fact that this was completely botched and not just from a communications perspective but biggest mistake was letting Mr. Porter continue in his job knowing it was inevitable this would come out. Once they knew that, they took a political gamble and now they're paying the price. But they made it worse. They defied the first rule of holes, which is when you're in one stop digging, by going too fast and the communications response.

When you're in a crisis communication in the White House, in corporation or anything, you have got to slow down, try to get the facts, get everything you know and do the time line that you know is to be accurate. Paul Begala wrote a book about it, a good one but you have to get the story out and Donald Trump needs to tell people that it was a mistake, that things are changed but I don't see him firing John Kelly, the right person got fired here, and that's Rob Porter. He was not fully disclosing the allegations against him and it back fired.

BERMAN: I'm so glad you brought up the fact this might not just be a communications issue. The problem here is the facts just stink, Paul.

BEGALA: Right, the titanic didn't have a communications problem, it had an iceberg problem. The president had an alleged wife beater at the very, very highest level. So far there's no evidence the president knew, so I'm not ready to scribe knowledge to him at all but there is no doubt that the FBI told the White House. Christopher Wray testified under oath about that.

It wasn't specific as to who he told but I guarantee, it wasn't like one of the chauffeurs, right? He told someone at the very senior level, the FBI did. They did not act on it. And this is awful for two reasons, first off, you had an alleged wife beater in the White House and also that person was subject to blackmail every minute that he was handling classified information, our nation's most trusted secrets. He was subject to blackmail. He had to go immediately and whoever was covering up for him and protecting him, they have to go too because it's dereliction of duty. They have to put protecting country and frankly, the president ahead of protecting some guy because he's a good staff guy.

BERMAN: You know it is interesting, Trent. I know to an extent you think that a lot of this is beltway drama. But obviously I also think that you think there are serious security issues here that have been brought up. I think the issue of domestic abuse, you know, is serious and things that needs to be addressed by the president. But it's beyond beltway drama when you have White House staffers talking to "Washington Post," and calling the Chief of Staff a big fat liar. [10:10:02] I mean, I cover the White House where you worked. I don't remember anyone ever calling Andy Card a bit fat liar you know to the "Washington Post" or "New York Times."

DUFFY: Because Andy Card wasn't a big fat liar. But I mean this White House is unlike any we've ever seen. And I don't know who said that. But as long as there are going to be people saying things like that to the "Washington Post" and CNN, there's going to be continue to be this kind of drama. There's an issue, depends on what level of which level the senior staff has lost faith in General Kelly. I don't think that's quite happened yet.

But I look back to - I mean, you know, Paul serving in the Clinton White House and the Lewinsky thing. They gave the job of answering to the press to an attorney, so they didn't have to. And Bush's White House, where I served, we had the Valerie Plame issue. So there does become a level of mistrust that has to be addressed and this ultimately has to be addressed by the president himself. You got to sit down with his White House staff internally, say who's the boss, how things are going to get fixed and move forward and get this behind them.

BERMAN: Gowdy -- Chairman Gowdy, the House Oversight Committee, Paul, is now investigating. How much weight do you put into - I have to admit, I was surprised to hear him just sort of admit it to Alisyn Camerota on "New Day" this morning, hey, we're investigating, we did it last night.

BEGALA: It didn't exactly look like a very formal serious start of an investigation. But we'll see. I'm skeptic. I think Mr. Gowdy a partisan Republican, the president is Republican, there's going to be a really close scrutiny to see whether he does the job. Will, for example, General Kelly be required to testify for 11 hours under oath in front of the Congress the way Hillary Clinton was when Mr. Gowdy was obsessed with Benghazi? I doubt it.

But this could be a very smart political move for Gowdy's -- and they have this presser in a few minutes, Kevin McCarthy, everybody can say, well Gowdy is on this. I can't talk about it right now because Gowdy is on it. So in terms of communications, very smart move, in terms of substance, I have my doubts.

BERMAN: All right, Trent Duffy, Paul Begala, communications experts, thank you for communicating with me.

Live pictures right now of House leadership. They are speaking right now. They will take questions any second. No doubt the House Speaker will be asked about this new investigation from the House Oversight Committee. No doubt the man in the blue tie there, Kevin McCarthy will be asked about the possibility, the rumors that he might replace the current White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. We are all over it.

Plus, this, the president's lawyer admits he paid an adult film actress $130,000 out of his own pocket. This is not normal. Stick around. We'll discuss.


[10:16:38] BERMAN: You're looking at live pictures of the House Leadership - the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives. They will take questions very shortly. No doubt there will be questions about this new congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding Rob Porter at the White House. The president's aide who was fired and resigned after domestic abuse allegations, how was he allowed to work in the White House for so long. Congress now investigating. We'll bring you those questions as soon as they come in.

In the meantime, another giant story developing overnight, the president's personal lawyer confirms that he paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels, $130,000 after these stories emerged about her having an affair with then candidate Donald Trump years before in fact he was a candidate. The money changed hands just weeks before the election. Let's go straight to our MJ Lee in Washington with the details here. MJ?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, John, just keep in mind that up until this point Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels both have denied this affair, the allegations that there was an affair back in 2006. But they really have not addressed questions about the payment. So, for the very first time and this is a big deal, Michael Cohen is acknowledging that this payment was made $130,000 but he is insisting that it was his own money and in a statement, he's making it clear what this money was not.

He says quote, "Neither the Trump organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford and neither reimbursed me for the payment either directly or indirectly."

Now, obviously he's trying to make the case that the campaign -- the Trump campaign did not have an involvement in this transaction but then the question still remains, why make this payment if there was no affair. And here's how Cohen addresses that issue.

He says, "Just because something isn't true doesn't mean it can't cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump."

So, basically, saying that out of loyalty to his client to Trump, he used $130,000 of his own money to make this payment. Now one more update to this morning, John, is that the lawyer to Stormy Daniels weighing in on this as well basically backing the idea that the $130,000 was in fact Cohen's own money saying that this is in complete harmony with what he was told by Cohen at the time of this transaction. Now the strategy here seems clear that both Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels are now saying that there was little involvement actually no involvement by the Trump campaign and that essentially Cohen was acting alone. The question of course still remains, what did Trump know at the time and what is he aware of right now and what is his reaction to all of this?

BERMAN: Yes, those are very important questions right there. $130,000 a lot of money to be exchanged on his behalf without him knowing just a couple of weeks before the election. MJ lee, thank you very much. Live pictures from Capitol Hill right now where congressional leadership answering questions, Kevin McCarthy right there, the House Majority Leader rumored as a possible replacement to John Kelly. Will he face questions on that? Much more ahead, stick around.


[10:23:58] BERMAN: House Speaker Paul Ryan taking questions right now. Let's listen in.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: He did inform us and that is his job as the govern Oversight reform chairman. They clearly have to work to do to fix their vetting system. I don't know exactly how they'll do that. I'll leave that to them but Chairman Gowdy is doing his proper job in Oversight and yes --

QUESTION: How can the White House better get in front?

RYAN: I'll leave that to them. Obviously, we're the House. I can't answer that question.

QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, the president has said he wishes Rob Porter well, does not know anything about the ex-wives, bad to say that Rob Porter abused them. Do you think that the White House should publicly condemn domestic violence?

RYAN: Absolutely. Look, I can't speak to what he said because I don't know the answer to what he did. Clearly we should -- come on, clearly we should all be condemning domestic violence. If a person who commits domestic violence gets in the government, then there's a breakdown in the system. There's a breakdown in the vetting system and that breakdown needs to be addressed.

Sorry, some of these -

[10:25:05] QUESTION: I have a question for the majority leader. I understand that you've had conversations with the president recently, I wonder if you can confirm that you've talked to him about -- explore the opportunity for Chief of Staff. Are you interested in that position at all if he offers it and would you serve if asked?

RYAN: It's the jacket, man --

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: First of all, I have not spoken to the president about anything about a job and never have. There is no job opening and congratulate you on your job.


QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, if the Goodlatte Deal does not whip favorably, will you still bring up an immigration bill -

RYAN: We're not going to do ifs ands or buts. I didn't mean to cut you off. We've got to solve this problem. What we've been saying all along is we have a problem that needs solving. We want to solve DACA but we also want to solve DACA in a comprehensive way such that we don't have a DACA problem in five years, right? I mean, what's the point of just fixing part of it and then having the same problem five or 10 years down the road? That is why we're talking about interior. That's why we're talking about border security. So, we think there's -- the president did a very good job of putting a very sincere offer on the table. And that sincere offer that he put on the table should be the framework through which we come together to find a solution. We want to find a solution.

Our hope that our Democratic colleagues are more interested in finding a solution than preserving an issue for campaigns, we're there for a solution. We're not trying to preserve an issue and what we always want to do in the House is have a House Republican position so which we can start from for negotiations. At the end of the day, we want to have a solution. We'll see what the Senate does this week. Frankly, I have no idea what the Senate is going to produce this week and we'll also have the president engaged to make sure we have something that if it lands on his desk he's going to sign it and that's very important to us.

QUESTION: Will the House vote on the immigration bill before March?

RYAN: Look, we think this deadline is an important deadline. Obviously, with the court ruling it's not as important as it was before giving the court rulings but I think this place works better with deadlines. We clearly need to address the issue in March. I'll leave it at that.

BERMAN: All right, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House majority leader Kevin McCarthy addressing many of the interesting questions, the pressing questions of today. Paul Ryan saying that he has been informed of the House Oversight investigation into the circumstances surrounding Rob Porter inside the White House. Paul Ryan says that absolutely the president should publicly and vocally condemn domestic violence which the president has not done. Paul Ryan also said that clearly a breakdown happened inside the White House and it needs to be addressed.

And Kevin McCarthy, a rumored possible replacement to Chief of Staff John Kelly told us that he has not spoken to the president about a job and said that there is no job opening right now. Did not answer the question about whether he would like the job. That's notable.

All right, joining us now to discuss this. Politics reporter from "The Guardian," Sabrina Siddiqui, CNN political analyst, Michael Bender, and CNN political commentator Salena Zito. And as I was introducing you guys, I got the official letter just now from the chairman of the House Oversight Committee Trey Gowdy to John Kelly. I have not had a chance to read the whole thing. But one part of this sticks out. Trey Gowdy tells John Kelly that based on what Christopher Wray, the FBI director told Congress yesterday, that Christopher Wray's comments might contradict a statement by the White House press secretary in which he said the White House learned the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening.

In other words, Trey Gowdy saying it seems as if he might have known this for a lot longer. Then Trey Gowdy is asking for any policies and practices and procedures relating to the investigation and issuance of interim security clearances, whether the judications of Porter's interim in final clearance were consistent with the policies and also the dates when Porter was given these various security clearances. So, there is now an official investigation. We have it on paper. Sabrina, the significance?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICS REPORTER, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, I think that what this underscores is a lack of Oversight within the White House when it comes to the security clearance process. And certainly that was what the House will focus on, less so on the moral issue of domestic violence, but why there was a high ranking official in the White House who was able to continue to have access potentially to classified information and operate off of an interim security clearance when the FBI was clearly raising flags during the course of his background check. And as you mentioned, the White House in recent days offering very conflicting explanations for what they knew and when they knew it. Ultimately someone in the White House made a decision that Rob Porter could stay on in his role when any other federal employee who would not have passed that background check would have been forced out of that role or at least moved into another lower ranking position.