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Trump's Lawyer Paid Porn Star; Pence Acknowledges Russian Meddling; Trump Still Unconvinced Russia Meddled; House Launches Probe; Handling Of Porter. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 14, 2018 - 13:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: We'll see you back here this time tomorrow. Wolf Blitzer starts right now.

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

Up first, the Trump administration under new scrutiny over the Rob Porter scandal. The White House faces more questions about the handling of domestic abuse allegations against Porter, and the vice president saying he stands by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.


MIKE ALLEN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, AXIOS: Are you 100 percent confident that General Kelly has been fully honest and transparent in his explanation of Rob Porter departure?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are very few Americans or American families that have served this nation more honorably or sacrificed more for this country than the family of General John Kelly.

And John Kelly's service in uniform and his distinguished service at our Department of Homeland Security, where we saw a dramatic reduction of illegal crossings at our southern border, and his distinguished service as chief of staff, gives me and the president great confidence in this good man.

And I want the American people to know, not just John Kelly, but family members in uniform, here and gone, have served this nation with a love and a patriotism and a passion that should inspire us all.


BLITZER: On top of this, the House Oversight Committee is now investigating. Here's what Congressman Trey Gowdy, the committee Chairman, told our Alisyn Camerota on CNN's "NEW DAY."


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Just so that I'm clear, will the Oversight Committee be launching an investigation into this? REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA CHAIRMAN, HOUSE OVERSIGHT

COMMITTEE: We did last night.

CAMEROTA: So, it's official?

GOWDY: We are directing inquiries to people that we think have access to information we don't have. I'm going to direct questions to the FBI that I expect them to answer.


BLITZER: This comes a day after the FBI director, Christopher Wray, contradicted the White House timeline, explaining what officials knew and when they knew it.

Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. He's over at the White House right now.

Jim, what more can you tell us about the focus of this House Oversight Committee's investigation? This is important news.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's very important news that the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Trey Gowdy, a Republican, volunteered on CNN that his committee has launched an investigation into all of this.

There are some key points that they are looking at in the context of their investigation.

But, Wolf, I just want to make sure that we focus pretty closely on what we just heard a few moments ago from the vice president, Mike Pence, talking to Mike Allen over at Axios just a few moments ago.

It was interesting what the vice president said to Mike Allen. He said, at one point, I think the White House could have handled this better, in reference to the Rob Porter saga. That's a pretty stunning admission from the vice president.

I think earlier, when he was at the Olympics, he told NBC's Lester Holt that while the White House says they could have handled it better, this was the vice president essentially saying, no, I think the White House could have handled this better.

And it's in contrast with what the chief of staff, John Kelly, said to "The Wall Street Journal" that everything was done right.

And so, once again, Wolf, we have, sort of, this gang that can't shoot straight. Everybody's talking in different directions about this Rob Porter saga.

And the vice president, you know, saying, at this event just a few moments ago, that the White House could have handled it better is another indication of that.

It's an indication that not only does he believe that they could have handled it better, but he's also, I think, perhaps, putting a little separation between himself and what's happening over here at the White House, in terms of the vice president.

The other thing, as you were just mentioning. Yes, Trey Gowdy opening up his own investigation into all of this is just going to prolong the agony for people inside the White House.

Because, obviously, the committee is going to be asking questions. They're going to be seeking documents. They're going to be seeking answers.

Here's a letter on screen to the chief of staff, John Kelly, from Trey Gowdy. And I believe we have a tear-out of that letter which focuses on some of the key issues that they're looking at. You can see it up on screen.

This is what they're going to be looking at, policies, practices, and procedures relating to the investigation and issuance of interim security clearances, including interim security clearances for White House personnel. Whether the adjudications of Porter's interim and final clearance were consistent with the policies, practices and procedures identified.

The date on which any White House employee, Wolf, this is very, very important, became aware of potential derogatory or disqualifying information on Porter from the date of his appointment, February 12, 2018 -- to February 12, 2018, when he was, I guess you could say pushed out, but he says he resigned.

And then, Wolf, the security clearance adjudication dates for Porter, including both interim and final clearance. Those questions go to the heart of the questions we've been asking in the briefing room over the last week or so.

Wolf, this is a textbook example of how a White House should not handle a matter like this. They've given us four or five different answers over a series of briefings, in terms of what happened. Who did what to who. Who punched John and so on.

And just yesterday, the White House was talking about this office of personnel security, that's where the FBI background check went to. We still don't have the answers as to what was done with that information, once it got to the office of personnel security.

I suspect that'll be one of the key questions at the briefing this afternoon which, not surprisingly, has been pushed to 2:30 this afternoon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Sarah Sanders is scheduled to do that briefing. They're not going to send out John Kelly, let him answer the questions. Lots of questions for him. Why not simply send out the White House chief of staff instead of sending lesser officials?

ACOSTA: Wolf, I think that is right on point. He has been, sort of, ducking in and out of press areas of the White House. And so, reporters have had the opportunity to shoot some questions at him from time to time. But he has not really answered any questions about this. The other point we should also make, Wolf, is that the president has repeatedly been asked questions about this since Friday, when he went ahead and said that, well, Porter is maintaining his innocence and did not say anything about Porter's alleged victims.

And so, the president has also shied away from these questions. And, again, it's just a textbook example of how a White House should not handle a matter like this. They keep changing their story and avoiding the questions, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House. We'll stand by for that briefing later. That's coming up fairly soon.

Let's talk a little bit more about all of this. I want to bring in our White House Correspondent Abby Phillip, CNN Political Analyst David Gregory and our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

How safe is Kelly right now?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you heard the vice president there.

I think that, last night, there was a lot of scurrying around and a lot of activity around the fact that the president had been calling people. One of whom he, sort of, remotely said, well, if I were thinking about changing chief of staff, would you be interested? And that was Tom Barrack. And he said, no. That was last Friday however.

And so, there's all this, kind of, activity about replacements and people in the White House wondering what is going on here. And I think now we're seeing an effort, from the vice president and others, to say, stop. We're done.


BORGER: It's over. There's not going to be a replacement for General Kelly. He is remaining where he is. And I think, obviously, that comes from the president.

GREGORY: I think that's the important point. Mike Pence, the Vice President, and not speaking out of turn here. He may be all the way over there in the Olympics.

But when he comes out and vouches for Kelly in this way, that means they're closing ranks.

This is a president who doesn't mind letting someone he's upset with know, because they leaked a fact that he's talking to other people about potentially replacing him. And maybe that was him firing a shot across the bow.

But I thought Jim said something that's important. And, Abby, you know this covering the White House day in and day out. You have to ask yourself, what's worse than chipping away at this story through multiple versions of the story? Somebody's got to come out and clean up and say, look, this was a great guy. We loved him. We didn't realize this was going on. We screwed this up. And it was out of an abundance of giving him a fair shake and our belief in him.

But we've got to focus on these women. And this was just horribly done. Somebody's got to own that.

The president has only made things worse and continues to do that by just staying away from it.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, in a lot of ways, what we're seeing from John Kelly is something that we often see from the president himself. Which is you don't back down. You don't admit you did anything wrong.

As recently as earlier this week, he told "The Wall Street Journal" that he thought everything had been handled perfectly. So, it's a pattern of behavior that, I think, is trickling down to -- in the ranks at the White House.

And also, to Gloria's point about Kelly's future, there are -- there have been so many times, over the last several months, in which President Trump has talked about wanting a change in his top aides. He's been doing it, virtually, since day one with Reince Priebus.

So, that's why a lot of people, even within the White House, are just not sure how this is going to shake out. But the fact they're talking publicly about Kelly having the confidence of the president is important. There's a reflection in the White House that more upheaval and chaos would be detrimental to what they're trying to do.

They had some progress with tax reform. They're moving forward with immigration and with infrastructure. Getting rid of a chief of staff would be like turning the cart -- you know, upturning the cart at a really critical time for them.

GREGORY: And a guy, by the way, who would be very important on final negotiations on immigration.

PHILLIP: That's right.

GREGORY: And I think he'll play a key role in that.

BORGER: (INAUDIBLE) with the president, he has a -- he has a (INAUDIBLE.)

GREGORY: He's actually acting a lot more like the president, when he's criticized, right?

BORGER: Right, exactly.

GREGORY: He's been acting a lot more like him.

BORGER: Exactly. But, you know, when you hear Sarah Sanders, all day yesterday and we'll hear today, say, to the best of my knowledge, as far as I know, you know, these kind of qualifiers, you have to assume that she's not being -- she's not being read in on a lot of this stuff.

[13:10:10] That this is something that Kelly held very closely. He's known for that. And then, when people are asking for explanations, they may not be getting the whole story from the very top.

BLITZER: And, as you know, David, a lot of Republicans, you know, think that Kelly has got to have, and this is what they've said to me, the guts to go into that briefing room and answer reporters' questions from A to Z. And not leave until all of the questions are answered, if he wants to stay on the job and have credibility.

GREGORY: Well, 100 percent, I agree. But I'm not sure that is what is required for him to stay on the job. I mean, I think it's very clear that the president --

BLITZER: His credibility.

GREGORY: Well, his credibility, right. And, you know, especially given who he comes from. I mean, what we've been told, over the past six months, is, you know, lauding his military experience and, of course, his sacrifices to the country which are immense.

And, of course, to be admired but are not relevant here. This is about his credibility as chief of staff doing a very difficult job and who did what, when and what did they know when?

And you're right. This is a guy who comes from a tradition of accountability. Let's see it. You know, we're tired of these questions.

BLITZER: He's a retired four-star Marine Corps general.


BLITZER: You know, and it's not going away.

You heard on CNN's "NEW DAY" earlier today. Trey Gowdy, the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, they want to have hearings. They want to investigate who knew what and when. They want specifics.

PHLLIPS: Right. There is, in fact, a broken system here. You know, CNN has reported, recently, that 30 to 40 White House staffers don't have full security clearances. That's a huge problem. And the Porter scandal is one element of that.

I think Republicans need to inoculate themselves from this on several fronts. One, on the national security front about putting someone like Porter in a position where he's often dealing with classified information but may not have ever been able to get a full security clearance.

And, secondly, this -- the idea that the White House is indifferent to domestic violence is incredibly damaging to Republicans. I think they recognize that. I think that's why you've heard people like Paul Ryan start to come out and say, this is -- you know, it's not acceptable to us.

But the one person you haven't heard that from is the president. And that's a problem that the White House doesn't seem particularly eager to resolve. He could have walked from the Oval Office to the briefing room, at any point over the last week, and he hasn't done it.

BORGER: Yes, but everything in this story is context. If the president were to come out and say this, then, of course, we know what occurred during the campaign and these 17 women who were accusing him.

And then, that raises -- that raises that specter all over again. And Donald Trump understands that. And I don't think he wants -- I don't think he wants to go there.

PHILLIPS: And it's also worth noting that it's not clear that more information is going to help them here. Every time we've learned more about how this has gone down, it's looked worse for them.

BLITZER: Right. All right, everybody stand by. There's more news unfolding right now.

Up next, porn star pay off. The president's lawyer now claiming he paid Stormy Daniels six figures out of his own pocket. We'll discuss.

And U.S. intelligence chiefs unanimously are saying that Russia is taking direct aim at this year's midterm elections here in the United States. But the president of the United States is still not convinced. Is the U.S. in danger?

And just in, the vice president talking about that infamous scene over at the Olympics, sitting right near Kim Jong-Un's sister. We'll hear what he just had to say when we come back.



[13:17:37] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: He fixes things. That's how one former Trump campaign official describes Michael Cohen's out of pocket payment to the porn star known as Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The president and Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, had an alleged affair years before he took office, but the president's personal lawyer has denied the accusation, says he still paid Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket, his own money.

Our national politics reporter, MJ Lee, has been working this story for us.

MJ, did Cohen say why he paid her all that money?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, first of all, it is really important to keep in mind that both Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels have previously adamantly denied allegations of this affair having taken place back in 2006, and they also really have not engaged questions about the issue of this payment. So it is a big deal that Michael Cohen is now saying that he did make this payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels in 2016. But what he is emphasizes is that he did it on his own. That it was his own money.

Here's a statement in which he explains who was not involved in making that payment. He says neither the Trump organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Miss Clifford and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. So he's clearly wanting to emphasize here that the campaign was not involved because some questions have been raised about whether this may have violated some campaign finance rules.

But the question you ask, Wolf, about why he would have made this payment if there was no affair, well, here's how Cohen answers that question. He says, quote, just because something isn't true doesn't mean that it can't cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump.

So what Cohen is saying here essentially, Wolf, is that out of loyalty to his client and friend, Trump, he made this payment. He made this decision to spend $130,000 of his own money to have this money be given to Stormy Daniels.

This, of course, is extremely unusual and not normal behavior coming from a lawyer.

BLITZER: Did he say that in exchange for the money she had a promise -- she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, she wouldn't talk about this?

LEE: Well, this is not something that Michael Cohen has addressed, and you remember that when Stormy Daniels has been asked about this, she's kind of danced around the issue, strongly suggesting that she couldn't speak freely because she had signed an NDA. And that, of course, raises a whole new set of questions about whether Cohen might be violating such an NDA.

[13:20:08] But, again, we have a lot of questions that are still unanswered. And one of those questions is whether there is an NDA and who is violating what at this point.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, MJ. I know you're working the story for us.

Gloria, you're also working the story for us. This is -- this is a weird twist of developments in this whole -- this whole saga.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would say it is. When your lawyer pays $130,000 in hush money or whatever you want to call it to a porn star, yes, I think that's a little strange.

What was interesting to me about the statement was that he said very specifically that neither the Trump Organization nor the trump campaign was a party to the transaction. What he doesn't say is whether Donald Trump was a party to the transaction or knew about the transaction or approved of the transaction. These are all questions we would like to get an answer to. DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And really important because, as

I've been talking to folks this morning, this is absurd on multiple levels.

One, as an ethical matter, if you're a lawyer, you have an obligation to inform your client of any material change in a case like this. You can't do it without your client's knowledge. Maybe the use of "was not party to this" is their way around that. Any kind of big change in a case like this, you'd have to share with your client in this case.

The other part of this is --

BORGER: It doesn't say he didn't. I mean that's what's interesting.

GREGORY: Right, that's the other thing.


GREGORY: But here's what else is absurd about this. This notion that Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct at, what, in a dozen cases, and this is number 13. But this is the one you want to pay off because if it -- if -- even if it's not true, that could be damaging, but all those other allegations that are out there, those are -- those were not worthy of it?

The last thing is, who runs a law firm where you pay out of pocket? I mean for -- on your client's behalf? So what's the quid pro quo here? Maybe Donald Trump pays Cohen and his firm so much money that they say, yes, we'll take care of this because we're going to get a lot down the line. But the notion that he just did this because he's protecting Trump is absurd on so many levels.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And I think we also should keep in mind that Michael Cohen, when this story first emerged, "The Wall Street Journal" reported the payments, he denied that the payments were made, which was -- we now know is false. He's now admitting to it. So there's a credibility issue on its face with things that he says about what did and did not happen. And I think that's why we should keep some of this stuff, you know, take it with a grain of salt. It's not all -- we cannot take it all at face value because he's proven to be willing to lie about what happened when the truth later comes out.

BLITZER: And he issued this statement because Common Cause filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, with the Justice Department, that this could be seen as an in-kind contribution, $130,000 to the campaign a month before the election, and that's why he had to release this public statement.

But I quickly want to go to another important development that has just unfolded, Gloria.

The vice president now sides with the CIA director, the director of National Intelligence, the director of the National Security Agency, the director of the FBI, in saying what the president is reluctant to say, that Russia did interfere in the presidential election and is still interfering.

Listen to this.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There were efforts by Russia, and likely by other countries, to involve or influence American elections. And we take that very seriously. As we speak, that inquiry investigation continues to be ongoing, but it's also forward looking. And as in my briefings, at a variety of our intelligence agencies, we have discussed plans going forward to ensure that meddling in our elections by Russians or other powers around the world will be rebutted and that we'll continue to develop the kind of technologies that ensure and maintain the integrity of our electoral system.


BLITZER: OK, he may say that. The intelligence chiefs may say that. But the president apparently still doesn't believe it.

BORGER: Right. And you're not -- it's -- he's not going to change. I mean this is -- this is a threat to the -- he believes, to the legitimacy of his election, and he is not going to get off of that. And as we've been talking about, he also believes that this is the way countries do business with each other. They spy on us. We spy on them. And there's no big deal here.

GREGORY: But the challenge is, what will they do going forward? If the vice president, if he's taken at his word, what are they prepared to do? We don't see any evidence of them taking it seriously or taking remedial steps to stop it, and that's something you ought to be very public about and you should be private about.

I thought "The Wall Street --

BORGER: And the president should be leading it.

GREGORY: Of course.

BORGER: Of course.

PHILLIP: Well, this will be a test of whether this can happen without the president.

GREGORY: That's right.

PHILLIP: Whether Mike Pence can step in as the number two in command and say, I'm going to be leading the whole of government approach to this.

GREGORY: But how do you do that when you don't have credibility, you know, with your own intelligence agencies, who, by the way --

PHILLIP: You know -- GREGORY: Under President Obama didn't react in real-time. And that's on the Obama administration. The question is, what does the Trump administration do -- prepared to do in real time now that we can all recognize what this kind of influence looks like?

BORGER: Well --

[13:25:16] PHILLIP: The interesting thing is also there's been some reporting about whether President Trump even wants to hear about the Russia investigation.


PHILLIP: Mike Pompeo was on The Hill yesterday. He talked about this. We know that he believes that this happened. Our people -- is the government operating without the president in command? Are they doing these things to address the Russia interference, even while he doesn't want to hear about it in his daily briefing or Mike Pence ends up being the one leading it. It's entirely possible that that could happen. Even with Trump's own, you know, Trump-led CIA that he now owns and runs.

BORGER: But it doesn't fit into the president's narrative on the Russia investigation, which is that the FBI is corrupt and that -- and that that is a problem for him. And so if the FBI is corrupt and other intelligence agencies were corrupt in dealing with the dossier and the Russia investigation, then he can't sort of do a back flip -- I've been watching too much Olympics -- he can't -- he can't do that and then say, you know, at the same time that we have to -- we have to stop Russia. We have to stop Russia. So it doesn't -- it doesn't fit his current narrative right now.

BLITZER: He certainly doesn't believe it, even though everyone else, the former intelligence chiefs --


BLITZER: The current intelligence chiefs, the ones he himself named, they were out there very vociferously yesterday saying the Russians did it and they're still doing it.

I want to press him when I -- and when we can, the vice president. He says other nations too besides Russia. I wonder which other nations he's talking about?

GREGORY: Maybe he means China and --

BLITZER: That they interfered in the presidential elections?

GREGORY: Not so now but I think he's (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: But that's what he's talking about specifically.

GREGORY: Yes, he was talking specifically. So I wonder. Yes.

BLITZER: All right, so is he -- I want to find out who else -- GREGORY: I agree.

BLITZER: Who else he's talking about besides Russia.


BLITZER: That what --

GREGORY: That will be (INAUDIBLE) in the General Kelly briefing that we'll get the -- after the Kelly briefing.

BLITZER: OK, they'll explain that as well.

All right, guys, thanks very, very much.

There's more breaking news. The conflicting timelines on who knew what has sparked a House investigation now into the handling of Rob Porter. This as doubts swirl over John Kelly's future in the West Wing of the White House.

Plus, it's not the first time a Trump-appointed official has been accused of misusing taxpayer dollars for personal travel expenses. We have details on the new scandal closing in on the VA secretary, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkina.