Return to Transcripts main page


Kelly Defends Self in Wake of Porter Scandal; Putin Touts New "Invincible Missiles" in Nuclear Capability; Trump's Allies Worried, Isolated. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 2, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:33:50] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following the breaking news. The White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defending himself in the wake of the Rob Porter scandal, the former White House aide accused of beating two of his ex-wives. Just a while ago, Kelly once again insisting to reporters he was not aware of the serious accusations against Porter until the day before the story broke. He did admit, however, that White House staffers, in his words, quote, "did not cover ourselves in glory with how they handle the fallout."

Let's bring in our political analyst, John Gregory, and our chief legal analyst, Gloria Borger.

It's interesting that he invited reporters in for a background session, some of it on background, some it on the record, and he made these points.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he felt the need to defend himself. I think what he's trying to do is wipe the slate clean here. You know, you've had Hope Hicks leave. She was involved in writing the Rob Porter statement. I think Kelly wants to kind of defend himself. I don't think he wanted to go out and do it publicly and have a press conference. So this is something members of the White House staff very often do in other administrations. And I think he felt the need to kind of clear things up with reporters, although, I'm not so sure it did.

BLITZER: He also said there is no reason for him to even consider resigning and no reason to have considered resigning.

[13:35:11] DAVID GREGORY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, because the storm has passed here and they're on to new scandals. That's the good thing about being chief of staff in a White House that is in such disarray historically that you can just wait for the next storm to come on. He weathered this one and, obviously, the boss doesn't want him to go. But what took so long to be so accountable? I don't think he deserves a gold medal for bringing in reporters to explain himself this far after the fact.

Then to say, well, there was never anything wrong here, but we didn't cover ourselves in glory. Tell it to us straight. There was a breakdown here, this thing was mishandled. It wasn't just him. You had Jared Kushner who had restricted clearance. You had to go back to the president's son-in-law, who was there because of nepotism, and dial back his clearance. This thing is a mess. He's chief of staff at a time when you have a president setting new marks for how erratic he can be. It doesn't make his sense of control look any better. Maybe this is an area where he wanted to clear things up.

BLITZER: Gloria just wrote a very strong piece on all the turmoil going on in the West Wing of the White House right now. We'll talk about that and a lot more right after the quick break.


[13:40:32] BLITZER: The White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is opening up today about the Rob Porter scandal, saying he didn't know about the allegations that Porter had physically abused two ex-wives until last month, even though it was mentioned by the FBI in Porter's security clearance investigation long before that.

Joining us now from San Francisco is John Podesta. He's a former White House chief of staffer for then-President Bill Clinton, former counselor to then-President Barack Obama, and former chairman for the Hillary Clinton for president campaign.

John, thanks so much for joining us.

First of all, as a former chief of staff at the White House, what do you think of John Kelly saying he had no idea about the Rob Porter scandal until February 6, as it was breaking?

JOHN PODESTA, FORMER CHAIRMAN, HILLARY CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN & FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF & FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, you know, if he says it, you know, maybe we can believe him, but the White House knew about it at least since last September. The FBI knew about it since January of the time they came in. And I think they must have told the White House security office and the White House counsel, Mr. McGahn, knew about it for many months. They had hundreds of security clearances. He said they became concerned about it, but they didn't do anything about it until "The Daily Mail" reported the facts on Mr. Porter. So I think way beyond they didn't cover themselves in glory, they really let this problem fester. They didn't do anything about it, and I think that, you know, it shows a White House that's really not functioning properly.

BLITZER: Kelly joked yesterday -- and I ask you this because you're a former White House chief of staff -- that his job is a punishment from God. What do you think of all the chaos that's currently surrounding Kelly and so many others in the West Wing?

PODESTA: Look, I think everybody who served in that office knows it's tough duty and it's a tough job. But General Kelly was brought in to provide order in the White House, and if this is what order looks like, what do you think chaos looks like? I mean, it's really, I think, gotten really, particularly in the last couple weeks, it's gotten worse, and I think it may get worse still, because we have reports now that Gary Cohn may leave as a result of the tariffs that the president has imposed over his advice, we have reports that General McMaster, the national security adviser, is getting pushed out, the president evidently is talking to General Kelly about pushing out -- I guess he doesn't want to talk to him directly, but pushing out Jared Kushner and his own daughter, Ivanka Trump.

So I think, you know, things are just unspooling there, and I think the fact that we see the president throughout this week coming up and really surprising his staff time and again on policy matters is an indication that there is no process left in the White House.

BLITZER: Let me ask you about all the Russian warnings, Putin warnings, as they unfolded yesterday from -- involving nuclear capabilities. President Putin touting new additions to his nuclear arsenal, what he calls invincible missiles. Listen to this.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): As a matter of fact, every single weapon system discussed today easily surpasses and avoids an anti-missile defense system. All of those tests were successful. It's just each of these weapon systems is at a different stage of readiness. One of them is already on combat duty. It's with troops.


BLITZER: What do you think of Putin's claims?

PODESTA: Well, look, there's been some dispute. He only showed an animation of a particular system he was talking about. But I take this very seriously. I think he's been emboldened, I think, as a failure to push back against Russia by this administration, particularly the president. The head of NSA said they've been told to do nothing special to prepare for the 2018 election. I think Putin feels emboldened and he's playing to the rhetoric.

Part of that is to his own public in advance of his own fake reelection that will occur soon. But I think this is very serious. I think he feels free to do it. Normally I think if he had a president in the White House who was applying pressure for the kinds of things he did, including interfering in the 2016 election, he wouldn't probably go out and make that statement. But right now I think he feels no constraint on doing it.

[13:45:17] BLITZER: The president personally hasn't said anything about Putin's latest statements on nuclear threats. But the State Department and the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, they both weighed in with strong statements on the nuclear claims by Putin. He hasn't -- what you're saying is you want to hear directly from the president, with the State Department, the National Security Council, others within the security department, what they say?

PODESTA: When the president of Russia directly threatens the United States, I would take that threat seriously, and you would think the president would respond. But as has been true for, you know, two years, the president doesn't seem to ever want to push back on president Putin. Now, look, I think the reality is, we have very strong defenses, we have the nuclear triad. I think president Putin is overstating the case about what he can actually accomplish. But, you know, we're -- you know, that atomic clock is ticking closer to midnight because of the zaniness and craziness with which we're conducting foreign policy these days.

BLITZER: You don't have confidence in the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser?


PODESTA: Well, I have confidence -- I think General Mattis is doing a terrific job. As I said, General McMaster seems like he's getting pushed out. You don't know whether Secretary Tillerson ever talks to the president. But at the end of the day, the commander-in-chief is vested in one man, and that's Donald Trump. So I think that General Mattis will give him good advice, but whether he takes that advice or not is a different story.

BLITZER: Let me give you a chance to respond to the latest attacks, and other conservatives being named by sources in the Paul Manafort indictment, the former Trump campaign chairman. Just over a week ago, President Trump tweeted, and I'm reading this from the presidential tweet" "The only collusion was between Russia and Crooked Hillary. Remember the dirty dossier, Uranium speeches, e-mails and the Podesta company."

I want to give you a chance, John, to respond to the president's tweet.

PODESTA: First of all, Wolf, I don't have anything to do with the company and haven't for 15 years. I think that, you know, if I had been asked for advice, I would have told my brother not to get involved with Mr. Gates. But I think that -- I don't think that this is a matter that's being actively pursued, but I think the president is trying to change the subject. That's what he always does. When the noose tightens, when there is reporting that finally the special counsel, Mr. Mueller, is looking at the hacking of my e-mails, which was a crime, the hacking of the DNC e-mails, that was a crime.

In 2016, it was covered as sort of a political event, but these were crimes that were committed. And he's looking at who might have known and who might have had advantage knowledge, including the president of the United States, about both the hacking and the release of those matters. Then he tries to change the subject. He tries to throw it off on something else. I don't think my brother did anything wrong, at the end of the day, and I think that will be shown. He's just trying to -- he kind of throws fairy dust in other directions that keeps "Breitbart" and FOX News able to talk about something.

BLITZER: Well, John --


PODESTA: It is what it is.

BLITZER: John, what evidence do you have that the then-Candidate Donald Trump had advance knowledge of the hacking of your account and the DNC?

PODESTA: I didn't say that he did. But I'm saying that Mr. Mueller seems to be interested in looking into that, and he's asking witnesses, according to NBC News, about whether he may have had some advance knowledge. Obviously, we have circumstantial evidence, including, you know, the things that Roger Stone, his close friend, was saying in august in advance of the release of the e-mails that were stolen from my account.

BLITZER: One final question. How does it feel to be attacked on Twitter and elsewhere by the president of the United States?

PODESTA: Oh, you know, I've sort of gotten used to it, Wolf. I think for the fact that the president from the Oval Office constantly attacks private citizens says more about him than the people he's attacking. At the end of the day, it's a tough business, and I've got pretty thick skin.

[13:50:16] BLITZER: John Podesta, thanks for joining us.

PODESTA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, brand news reporting from our own Gloria Borger. She's here with us. President's allies are worried that the turmoil in the West Wing may just be the beginning, and potentially could send the president on a downward spiral. We'll discuss that when we come back.


[13:54:55] BLITZER: President Trump's allies are deeply worried about him right now, saying they're becoming increasingly isolated. Telling one source, I'm quoting now, "something is very wrong."

CNN's chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and CNN political analyst, David Gregory, back with us.

Gloria, you wrote an excellent piece on, breaking it all down. We've gone through it before, but you say something feels different this time.

BORGER: In talking through friends of his, who have known him for quite some time, they tell me they're worried about him because they say this has a different feel. They say he is spiraling, lashing out, out of control. One said, this has economic impact, talking about his decision on tariffs, and said something is very wrong here. He's blaming everybody else for his problems. He's angry at, you know, his son-in-law, at General Kelly and McMaster and everybody else.

He's never done anything wrong. And then he confuses people by what side of an issue he's going to be on. One day, he's for gun control. The next day, he's for the NSA. He's not for gun control. One day, he's for saving DREAMers. The next day, not so fast. So, the whole thing seems to be just growing a little too chaotic for their comfort level. And they like Donald Trump. BLITZER: You wrote the sentence that certainly jumped out at me: "Not

since Richard Nixon started talking to the portraits on the walls of the West Wing has a president seemed so alone against the world."

BORGER: Yes. And David knows this. Look, he's lost the people in the White House who were the closest to him. Keith Schiller was his body guard. Hope Hicks is leaving. Melania is not so happy with him these days after the Stormy Daniels story. There is friction with Jared and Ivanka. And Kelly keeps a lot of people from talking to him, keeps him isolated to keep him on track. I guess --


BORGER: Right.

GREGORY: No, I think there's a lot of problems. But if you look at how erratic the president is personally. Professionally, he has no experience in government. And so the great promise of him is that he would come in, as an outsider, and stay as an outsider, even as the ultimate insider. The problem is the recklessness means that people around him, let alone people on the Hill, let alone foreign governments, can't put any stock in what he actually says or what he actually believes.

Now, we were told in one important measure that the stock market was a sign of his fabulous leadership. Well, guess what? He is tanking the stock market with this tariff decision. And the Dow, which was about 27,000, is now 24 and change. Thank you, Mr. President, because you said that's how we should judge you. I'm just going by what you said and here we are, after your decision.

So I think in addition to that, this kind of -- nobody he will listen to who will say, no, Mr. President, you cannot attack the Justice Department and its independents. And it has him going in all different directions.

And I keep saying, over and over again, when process breaks down like this and there's a real crisis involving life and death, a president in this condition should make people worried even if you like him. I think that's the bulk of your reporting.

BORGER: Yes. And I keep saying that these are people who know him well and have watched him for years. One of them said to me, look, the president reacts to these situations differently for most of us, because he enjoys the chaos. But sometimes, as David points out, in a dangerous situation, you cannot govern chaotically.

By the way, where is the governing going on? Where are the solutions that he wants? He's getting in his own way now because he has these televised meetings which seem to sound great and then go nowhere.

GREGORY: Just one point on that. Let's remember, to his credit, this candidate, who promised building a border wall, he could have had it. He could have achieved a signature promise. He let it pass. He didn't get a major bill on immigration, which I think would have made him look great. Now he has an opportunity on guns. Who knows where he is. I don't believe when he says he's going to take on the NRA and he doesn't worry about them, I don't believe all that. We've seen this movie before. Let's see what he actually does.

BLITZER: You saw the Maggie Haberman report that -- this is very strange that the president in a Machiavellian way is working with Kelly to oust his daughter and son-in-law.

BORGER: I think, and I've heard this in my reporting, that the president has grown frustrated with all the headlines about everyone regarding Russia and foreign entities. Jared has had more than his share. Then Jared's security clearance was downgraded. He told Kelly very publicly I'm not going to handle this. I want you to handle this. It's hard for me to see how Jared does the job that he was assigned to do, peace in the Middle East, relations with Mexico, without having substantial clearance. I think the president has said to his friends, Jared and Ivanka are taking a lot of hits here in Washington, maybe it's best.


BLITZER: Had a pretty good life in New York. Maybe it's best for them to go back.

Guys, thanks very much.

That's it for me. The news continues right now.