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Congress Investigating White House Handling of Rob Porter Abuse Allegations; Intel Chief: Security Clearance Process is "Broken"; Trump Refuses to Acknowledge Russian Election Meddling; V.A. Secretary Under Fire Following I.G. Report; Pence Offers Staunch Defense of John Kelly; Senate Begins Immigration Debate; Pence Talks Infamous Olympic Scene Sitting Near Kim Jong-Un's Sister. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired February 14, 2018 - 13:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:31:54] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The White House's Rob Porter scandal has revealed a glaring issue with security clearances. Porter didn't have full-time, full security clearances -- interim clearances he had -- even though he was handling some of the most critical documents for the president. Now the Congress wants to know why and has launched a formal, full-scale investigation.
Joining us from Capitol Hill is Utah Congressman Chris Stewart. He's a Republican. He's, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. CHRIS STEWART, (R), UTAH: Of course, Wolf. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: Another member of your committee, a Republican, Trey Gowdy, who is also chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on CNN this morning that his committee is now launching a full investigation into the security clearance issues surrounding Rob Porter, the former staff secretary at the White House. Do you agree that a full congressional investigation is needed?
STEWART: Yes, for sure. There's some questions here we really need to get the answers to. Part of it is a personnel type of question: Were procedures followed? But more importantly, there's actual national security implications for this that I think we need to understand as well.
BLITZER: You believe someone like Porter, who had no full security clearance and was accused by his ex-wives of domestic abuse, should have had access to the presidential daily brief, which he delivered to the president, and other top-secret, classified information?
STEWART: Yes, you know, this is a bit of a gray area in the sense that it's not uncommon for those who are waiting on a final clearance to be granted some limited access, but it should be limited, and it should be on an interim basis. It shouldn't go on for obviously as long as this one went on for. Again, this is a problem that we need to understand. More broadly, Wolf, as well, we've got an enormous background, I mean, a years'-long backlog in getting people their background and security clearances. Speaking more generally, we've got to get better at that as well.
BLITZER: What about the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner? He's also in a similar limbo situation. He has interim clearances, not full clearances, but according to "The Washington Post," he has access to the presidential daily brief as well.
And I raise the question whether he should because Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, testified yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee that if you only have interim clearances, you should only have limited access.
Should someone like Jared Kushner have, apparently, full access to the presidential daily brief?
STEWART: Once again, I think I stated what Director Wray said as well. That is an interim clearance situation should be limited access. I think that's generally the rule. It should be the rule. I don't know if the White House operates outside of that. They might have some executive authorities that allow them more latitude. I don't know the answer to that. But once again, we should comply with the rules that exist. There's a reason they exist. And if some of those rules were broken, we should identify that and correct that.
BLITZER: Let me switch gears for a moment while I have you here. You're on the Intelligence Committee. Yesterday, we heard the nation's intelligence chiefs -- all of them -- they reiterated during their testimony that Russia did, in fact, meddle in the 2016 presidential election. I want you to listen to this for a moment, Congressman.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[13:35:13] DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: 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.
MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: Yes, we have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here.
ROBERT CARDILLO, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL GEOSPATIAL-INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: There's no change in my view of the 2017 assessment. I support that. I agree with Director Pompeo's assessment about the likelihood of the 2018 occurrence as well.
MIKE ROGERS, NSA DIRECTOR: I participated in that 2017 work. I stood by it then. I stand by it now. And I agree with Director Pompeo, this is not going to change or stop.
UNIDENTIFIED INTELLIGENCE AGENCY DIRECTOR: Yes, it is not going to change, nor is it going to stop.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And moments ago, the Vice President Mike Pence said the same thing, basically, reiterating that Russia did, in fact, interfere. But the curious question -- and I know we've discussed this before -- why does the president still refuse to acknowledge that fact?
STEWART: You know, I think there's two issues here. If I could talk about what these gentlemen said and just say I agree, I agree, and I agree. I was in Moscow just before the election, came home, and said they're going to mess with our election, no question about it. And you look at the success that they've had. There's no question they're going to continue to try in 2018 and 2020 and beyond.
I think the president divides these into two different boxes, if you would. One of them is, did Russia try to interfere? We all know they did. They were actually successful to varying degrees.
The second one, and I think the one he speaks about, is these accusations of him or some of his campaign aides actually colluding with Russians. I think that's the one where he says that didn't happen, that's not true.
BLITZER: So why doesn't the president say -- in the State of the Union address, he didn't even utter anything about this -- or issue a directive. And these intelligence chiefs say they got no specific directive from the president to investigate. Why doesn't he make this a priority? Yes, the Russians did it. They're already doing it again. We have midterm elections in November. We have to take some steps to stop them. Why don't we hear that from the president?
STEWART: I can't speak for the White House, Wolf. I can't speak for the president. But I'll tell you this, that many of us recognize it is a prior I priority. That's why we've been investing this going on 15, 16 months now. The House Intelligence Committee, a few other committees, Judiciary, for example, the Senate is doing the same thing. The Russians were successful in manipulating public opinion and breaking down that foundation of democracy that we know is so important for us to be successful and that they targeted, and we need to be able to come to the American people and say, this is how we can counter this, this is how we can do better. And I hope that the focus will shift over to that, especially just before the next election. We need to address it before next November comes around.
BLITZER: Congressman Chris Stewart, thanks so much for joining us.
STEWART: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: A cover-up filled with false statements, a doctored e-mail and taxpayer money. Details now on the new report revealing the president's secretary of Veterans Affairs may have misled top ethics officials. We have new information. We'll be right back.
[13:42:31] BLITZER: Free tickets to Wimbledon, expensive taxpayer- funded travel now engulfing another member of the Trump cabinet in a major controversy. It's the Veteran Affairs secretary, David Shulkin.
Our politics senior writer, Juana Summers, is working this story for us.
Juana, what's new in this new report about what the secretary of Veterans Affairs was up to?
JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: Wolf, this is a pretty expansive report. It finds that the chief of staff to V.A. Secretary David Shulkin altered an e-mail and made false statements, and that then led to the secretary's wife's travel being paid for, for this more than a week-long trip to Europe last summer. That comes in an I.G. report today. That cost taxpayers more than $4,000. Other findings in that report as well that he improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon that, had he purchased, the I.G.'s report said would have costed thousands of dollars. It also says very interesting here that Shulkin himself directed a staffer at the V.A. to access what they're calling -- and I'm quoting this report -- "a personal travel concierge" to him and his wife, setting up all kinds of personal activities that didn't have anything to do with the agency's work. Shulkin is being ordered to repay the department for his wife's travel. Also, reimburse the business associates who gave these tickets back, the money for those Wimbledon tickets as well as to overgo an investigation into the travel packages of the department he leads.
BLITZER: What is Secretary Shulkin saying about this?
SUMMERS: He released a statement to this as well as a response to the V.A. I.G. I want to quote that statement now. He says, "A report of this nature is a direct assault on my spouse, my character, and my unblemished record of service to the Veterans Affairs Administration. Your staff's conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda. Your portrayal of this trip is overall entirely inaccurate."
Important to note, he's not the only cabinet official who's been under fire for travel practices. There have been at least five other cabinet secretaries under fire for these practices as well. Members of Congress saying they want to hear more. At least one Republican, who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee, says Shulkin now needs to go.
BLITZER: Thank would be Representative Mike Coffman --
[13:44:38] BLITZER: -- of Colorado.
All right. Juana, good report. Thanks very much for that.
We're following breaking news on the Rob Porter abuse scandal that's engulfed the White House and the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly now for more than a week. The vice president, Mike Pence, offers a staunch defense of the chief of staff as the House of Representatives launches its own full-scale investigation.
BLITZER: The vice president, Mike Pence, weighs in on the fallout from the Rob Porter scandal. Here is what he said moments ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This administration has no tolerance for domestic violence, nor should any American. As I said, and as the White House has said, I think the White House could have handled this better. And I still feel that way. That being said, any more counsel I have on this I'll share with the president of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[13:49:58] BLITZER: Crisis isn't likely to end any time soon. We're told the House Oversight Committee now opening a full-scale investigation into the Porter saga on how the White House handled it or mishandled it.
Joining us now to talk about that and more, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire.
Senator, thank you for joining us.
SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN, (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Nice to be with you.
BLITZER: What's your reaction to Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, announcing on CNN this morning he was launching a full-scale investigation?
SHAHEEN: I think that's helpful. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress should be very concerned about oversight and about whether the people who are handling sensitive and classified information in the White House have the appropriate security clearances. So, I hope that's what they're going to be looking at. And I hope that we will get answers as to why so many people in this White House have not been cleared by the FBI so that they can handle these sensitive documents.
BLITZER: Should they be able to handle these sensitive documents? Specifically, let's say, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has interim security clearance but "The Washington Post" reports that he has access to the president's daily brief, which is the most sensitive information out there?
SHAHEEN: This is unprecedented, as far as I know, in history, that you would have people who don't have security clearances, who have access to this kind of information. So, I think everybody in the White House who doesn't have proper security should not be handling these documents. And I hope that this administration will make those changes and make sure that only people who have clearance are able to look at the documents.
BLITZER: Do you have confidence in the White House chief of staff, John Kelly? Should he stay on the job or should he resign?
SHAHEEN: That's for the president to decide. But I think it's important to send a message that we understand that having proper security clearances is important for this nation's national security, that we understand that it's very important to send a very strong message that domestic violence is not acceptable, and we won't tolerate it for men or women. And I hope that we will continue to see this White House say that.
The vice president was very clear, what's been missing is the president's being willing to come out and say exactly that, that he does not tolerate domestic violence and that he understands that when victims come forward that we need to listen to them.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the immigration debate that's under way on the floor of the Senate as we speak right now. Is there going to be legislation, a bill passed that will protect the so-called DREAMers, the DACA recipients, in exchange for a lot more money for border security, including a new wall that the president wants built along the U.S./Mexico border?
SHAHEEN: Well, that's what I've been working for, to make sure that we can allow those DREAMers, the young people who were brought to this country through no fault of their own by their parents, are able to stay here, that they can go to college, serve in our military, that they can work in productive jobs. It's important to them. It's important to our country. I hope we'll be able to make a deal that the majority of 60 votes of Republicans and Democrats can support.
BLITZER: Will you support about $18 billion for that wall? Apparently, that's what the president wants in the budget, plus billions more for other security elements.
SHAHEEN: We've heard from the Department of Homeland Security that they could use about $2.5 billion in the next year to address security along our border. I support that. I think we need to interdict drugs that are coming in. We have a huge opioid epidemic in New Hampshire. I want to make sure that those drugs aren't coming across the border, just as I want to make sure that people aren't coming into the country that are a threat to the country. But I think we're not going to set up a slush fund that the administration can take money from at any time over the next 10 years. What we need to do is make sure that there is a commitment to border security, that there is oversight for those dollars, and that we know how they're going to be spent.
BLITZER: Senator Shaheen, thank you for joining us.
SHAHEEN: Thank you.
[13:54:34] BLITZER: We're awaiting the White House press briefing. Concerns about the administration is not able to contain the Rob Porter abuse scandal.
And, of course, the president's lawyer claiming he personally paid a porn star to protect then-Candidate Donald Trump. We'll have a lot more on that. New information coming in. Stay with us. We'll be back.
BLITZER: Vice President Mike Pence spoke earlier this hour, was asked about the infamous scene at the Olympics last week when he was sitting very close to Kim Jong-Un's sister.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PENCE: I didn't avoid the dictator's sister, but I did ignore her. I didn't believe it was proper for the United States of America to give any countenance or attention to someone in that form that is not only the sister of the dictator but is the leader of the propaganda effort. I mean, you have to remember this is a family that very recently ordered that their brother be murdered using chemical weapons. And the world saw that in horror on airport videos reproduced. This is a regime and a family that also ordered that their uncle be executed with artillery fire in front of a crowd of 10,000 people. And she's the leader of the propaganda effort of that government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[14:00:12] BLITZER: We'll have more on North Korea coming up later in "THE SITUATION ROOM," 5:00 --