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Congress Passes Spending Deal; Under Fire for Handling of Porter; Trump Seeks Allies Advice. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:17] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The government is back in business after a brief overnight shutdown. President Trump, this morning, signed a new spending plan that tosses his campaign promises to balance the budget and shrink the debt on to the trash heap.

Plus, pictures do speak a thousand words. Korean athletes, North and South, march carrying unification flags. Vice President Pence looks on with Kim Jong-un's sister just a few seats away.

And the president is mad again, this time about how top aides handled the Rob Porter scandal. He's asking friends and allies for advice. Democrats? They have thoughts, too.


REP. PETER WELCH (D), VERMONT: Rob Porter was a serial wife beater. I mean this guy is astonishing. It's illegal. It's immoral. And, by the way, it's really cowardly. So -- and what we also know is that General Kelly, in the White House, was aware of this for over a year. How did this person, who committed crimes, he didn't even have a security clearance, yet he was being allowed to see the most secret documents involving our national security. So this is just, on every level, inexcusable.


KING: Back to that story in a moment.

But we begin this hour with what happened while most of you were sleeping. The government shut down and then Congress agreed to reopen it again. Two hundred and forty to 186 vote in the House of Representatives before sunrise this morning and then a signature from the president, 8:39 a.m. Eastern, means Washington now has a new budget and both parties officially have adopted a new mentality: spend now, pay later.

The candidate who called himself the king of debt is now the president content to add $5 billion to the deficit over the next two years. So add this to the heap of abandoned Trump campaign promises.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You put forward a balanced budget, your first budget, or will it take a couple of years?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, no, but it will take fairly quickly and it can be done.


TRUMP: You know, he likes the penny plan. And the penny plan, you know, it sounds simple, it's actually very good and you can do more than a penny, by the way. But it will take place and it will go relatively quickly.


KING: The president this morning on Twitter said, yes, there's some waste in this, but he called the bill a big victory for the military and then he teased the next big fight here in Washington.

Fortunately, DACA not included in this bill. Negotiations to start now.

With us today to share their reporting and their insights, Karoun Demirjian of "The Washington Post," Olivier Knox of "Yahoo! News," Astead Hemdon with "The Boston Globe," and Eliana Johnson with "Politico."

I think everybody agrees it's a good thing to keep the government or at least to keep the shutdown limited to five or six hours overnight when most people are sleeping. But it is a remarkable document the president signed today, especially when you think of what he campaigned on, it will be easy to balance the budget, in eight years I'm going to get rid of the national debt, and the fact that you have a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate and the way to keep the government open was to pass a budget that Barack Obama could never dream -- pass a spending plan. It's technically not a budget -- could never dream of getting through the Congress.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, it's kind of remarkable that, you know, the Republicans who were so united around this deficit message, many of them have abandoned that. There's a few that, you know, that have stuck to that and said they wouldn't vote for the bill yesterday -- or I guess in the early hours of this morning because of that. Reporters are the one group of people, I guess, that don't get off well in these shutdown last-minute things.

But -- but, yes, the party has moved away from that and just kind of been like, you know, nothing to see here on that one as they are, you know, trying to strike these deals and trying to get a win for the president. And, yes, they did, as a party, try to push for more defense spending without the matching, you know, domestic dollars, but that's the way that these agreements and these arrangements and these deals work right now, is you have to match and have more parody than not. And that balloons the size of these budgets. And that balloons the deficit. So it's -- it's a real shift, a market shift, from the Republican

Party of 2016 to the Republican Party of 2018 as to how important that is.

KING: And is that just because it is 51-49 in the United States Senate. So, to be fair to Republicans, they have to compromise with Democrats. They can't get everything they want. Is it just because of that or is the Republican Party moving away from what we saw in 2010, the Tea Party, 2014, a more Tea Party taking back the United States Senate. The one person being blamed by his Republican colleagues, by the way, the one person who did stand up in the Senate and who did force a government shutdown again for about eight hours and 39 minutes is Rand Paul. Listen.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, how come you were against President Obama's deficits and then how come you're for Republican deficits?

Whose fault is it, Republicans? Yes. Whose fault is it, Democrats? Yes. It's both parties' fault. You realize that this is the secret of Washington. The dirty little secret is, the Republicans are loudly clamoring for more military spending, but they can't get it unless they give the Democrats welfare spending. So they raise all the spending.


[12:05:13] KING: It's just -- what happened to the Republican Party that we had for at least eight years of Barack Obama?

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Well, Rand Paul did succeed in making everybody feel uncomfortable because they were exhausted. I'm not sure they felt uncomfortable because they approved $500 billion in extra spending. But I think it's both. Republicans approved it because there's -- they have a slim majority in the Senate and a relatively slim majority in the House, the much larger majority.

But also because I think Donald Trump, in his 2016 victory and a huge, smashing victory in the primary, showed that Republican voters don't care as much about fiscal austerity, debt and deficits as they originally thought. And that the base is much closer to Donald Trump than it is to Paul Ryan, who for years before was campaigning on fiscal restraint. And so you see the party moving much closer to Donald Trump, who you showed a clip of him during the campaign, but during the presidency, he hasn't talked much about balancing the budget or, you know, debt and deficit.

ASTEAD HEMDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": I think it's also about the weight of tribalism and the weight of governance. I mean they are now the majority party, responsible for keeping the government open, obviously. And we've seen that maybe the voters did care when they were the opposition party. But, as you said, when Donald Trump came and kind of swept to victory, one of the things that he was able to campaign on was an infrastructure bill, a -- one of -- message that really didn't look at the deficit and debt that much and so that gave them some wiggle room to do what they did this morning.

KING: And to both of your points about, this is now, without a doubt, Donald Trump's Republican Party. I just want you to look at some of the commentary out here. Phil Klein writing an op-ed in "The Washington Examiner" with the headline, Republicans repeal the Tea Party. The Republicans essentially repealing the force that put them here in Washington, and then this cartoon. Ben Shapiro tweeted this out. It's a great cartoon. He says, this is about right, a cartoon of an elephant and a donkey, the representatives of the Republican and Democratic Party, if you will, under water with that weight of debt pulling them down shaking hands.

It is -- again, we could say this was bipartisanship, this was adult behavior, they didn't shut down the government -- or at least they didn't really shut down the government. But, at the same time, this is a giant shift in Republican philosophy.


KING: Good.

KNOX: They discover deficit hawkery (ph) when they don't hold the White House basically.

KING: Right.

KNOX: Or when they're crafting a budget. Remember, you made that distinction earlier, spending plan --

KING: So it's all a political message. It's never really what they believe.

KNOX: There's real spending and then there's the federal budget, which is just a messaging documents. And basically Republicans discovered deficit hawker when they're writing a budget, which is meaningless, or when they're in the opposition party. We didn't see this under George W. Bush with massive tax cuts. We obviously didn't see this under Ronald Reagan. We saw this under Clinton and Obama. We don't see it now. This is not -- this has never really been a core belief. No matter what they say, no matter how often they say it, Paul Ryan may be where he is as speaker because he was, in the words of an esteemed Bloomberg colleague, a wonky tonk wonder kind of spending -- cutting spending.

But the fact of the matter is, that this is more about the fact that they are now in charge.

KING: So pay no attention to the Republicans when they campaign. Only pay attention to them when we have a Democratic president? I'm interested -- I'm interested to see if they have primaries about this. If we have some Republican primaries of people out there saying you can't do this --

JOHNSON: I think -- I think that's a really important point that, as the president said, things look different from behind the Oval Office desk and it's proved tremendously difficult for Republicans to cut spending when they run the government. You remember President Bush, it was Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind. These were extraordinarily expensive programs. And both times, during the Reagan administration and during the Bush administration, there were some -- there was a minority in the party. Mike Pence was a vocal proponent of those programs during the Bush administration. There were others during the Reagan administration. But those voices did not win out.

KING: Right.

KNOX: And, by the way, they're going to rediscover deficit hawkery --

KING: Right.

KNOX: On short order when they start going after entitlement spending.

HEMDON: It's about what -- I think it's also part of what (INAUDIBLE) --

KING: Their president has told them, don't do it.

HEMDON: I think it's a part of what they're -- what you're spending on. We've seen Republicans rediscover that message when it comes to entitlements, food stamps, Medicaid and other programs that they have wanted to restructure. And so while they may put it to the side tonight, I imagine they'll come back when it's something that they --

KING: They don't have the votes in the Senate to do it is the issue. The issue is --

HEMDON: Right.

KING: IF, in the end, you have to deliver results, which send the budget deficit or the spending arch down, not today.

A quick show of hands before we go to break. Does anyone here at this table believe -- now that they move on to the next issue, immigration, the Senate starts Monday -- is there anyone here at the table who thinks that by March, when the deadline is for the dreamers, the DACA recipients, we will have a deal? If you think yes, raise your hands.

I didn't think so.

All right, for those of you who weren't watching the House floor live at 5:00 in the morning -- Karoun was -- 70 plus House Democrats made Republican leaders sweat it out a little, taking their time to vote yes on the budget deal. A little bit of showmanship there.

[12:10:06] Up next, the president frustrated with three of his top aides, at least, who stayed silent on what they knew about Rob Porter.


In a moment, the president's anger and the White House fallout now that a trusted Oval Office insider has been forced out because he's accused of physically abusing his wives and girlfriends. But first, how we got here and how it was that Rob Porter was allowed to stay on the job so long. Two of his now ex-wives told the FBI last year of the abuse. That's why Porter couldn't get a security clearance. "The Washington Post" first reported a former Porter girlfriend alerted the White House Counsel. But Porter was kept on as staff secretary. That's one of the most important presidential aides. Kept on despite accounts like this. Jennie Willoughby told the FBI a year ago about her marriage to Porter and last night shared her story with Anderson Cooper.

[12:15:02] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JENNIE WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: It was a low-grade, constant terror of not knowing what I might do to set something off, what mood he would have.

The reality is, he's not a monster. He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man, and he is deeply troubled and angry and violent. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": And the people he works with may not have seen that side of him at all?

WILLOUGHBY: Of course not. Of course not. It's reserved for the most intimate and most vulnerable moments in his life.


KING: Again, we'll get to the president's anger about all of this in a moment. It includes, we are told, unhappiness with his chief of staff, John Kelly, unhappiness with his long-time communications aide, Hope Hicks. But how or why was Porter allowed to stay on the job for months at least after his behavior was known to top White House officials? And that is the question about the judgment of the White House council, the judgement of the chief of staff. The not bringing this to the president, if he was truly blindsided by this in recent days that, tells you something about the management operation in the White House.

I just want to go back a little bit, January -- February 2017. This is CNN reporting now. Some of it first reported by "The Washington Post" and has been confirmed by CNN. January, February, 2017, the earliest days of the administration, Porter went to the White House Council, asked about the background check process, and says my ex-wives might present some potentially damaging information. Right out of the box, the White House Council is teed up about this.

We'll get to more of this. But this is from "The Post" story.

In January, 2017, when McGahn, Don McGahn, the White House Council, learned of the allegations, he wanted Porter to stay put because he saw the Harvard Law-trained Capitol Hill veteran as a steadying and professional voice in the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. His view didn't change in June when the FBI flagged some of its findings to the White House. Nor did he act in September when he learned that the domestic violence claims were delaying Porter's security clearance, or again in November when Porter's former girlfriend contacted him about the allegations, according to these people.

Help me. So very senior people around the White House think it's OK as long as we can keep this from the public, I guess?

DEMIRJIAN: Clearly there's a -- a lesser of evils calculation that they did there and they decided that having a person that could be a calming influence on the president was worth more than actually highlighting the fact that this guy had documented cases of domestic abuse and that that might actually pose a problem in the future. It's -- it's troubling -- it is troubling --

KING: Does actually green light him too -- green light him if my bosses are aware of this and they're letting me keep this incredibly important, sensitive job?

DEMIRJIAN: I mean this is --

JOHNSON: Well, I think we need to go to -- like who were the decision makers here? So Don McGahn is notified about this. And we know that -- he is the White House Council. And we know that John Kelly, the ultimate decision maker, really, along with the president, about whether or not this person would stand, knew of this as far back as last fall. And so I think the buck really does stop with the chief of staff. And, you know, to give these people the most benefit of the doubt, I really do think that Chief of Staff Kelly, and Don McGahn, were trying to reconcile somebody who they knew to be an incredibly competent person in the workplace who had a sterling resume that the president admired and who had developed a relationship with the president with somebody with a police record that they saw and claims that they saw as wildly inconsistent with this. That's what I think was happening internally in the White House. It is tremendously difficult to explain, but I think that they were grappling with, could this possibly be the person that we work with day to day?

DEMIRJIAN: Look, this goes back to John's point, thought --

KING: Right, but they -- but they -- they have the files, though. If they wanted to, they could say, you know, we love you, Rob, we think you're great, you need some help. Go get some -- go get some help and then we'll save a job for you. They could have done that. Instead they kept him.

KNOX: Well, remember, the FBI's not making a moral judgement here, they're making a security decision.

KING: Right.

KNOX: That's what's so astonishing about this. The staff secretary controls the flow of paper in and out of the Oval Office, including a lot of classified information. The president can overrule that position. He could have stayed on with

an interim (ph) clearance forever. But the FBI's not saying, you know, oh, we frown on domestic violence. What they're saying is, they look at things like substance abuse, extramarital affairs, financial problems, anything that might make someone liable to blackmail. That's one of their main concerns. So they didn't make a moral judgment, they made a security judgment, and this White House overruled that security judgment. That's -- really that stands out enormously.

KING: Right.

JOHNSON: I have to say, what's most mystifying to me in all of this is Kelly's on the record statement praising Porter's moral character given that he knew all of this.

KING: Right. And that statement, he --

JOHNSON: You know, it's one thing to emphasize --

KING: There's no dispute he knew it all then when he issued that statement the other day.

JOHNSON: Right. And so that -- that is truly mystifying to me and I think a tremendous lapse in judgment on the chief of staff's part.

DEMIRJIAN: Joh, you brought something a minute ago about it being a green light, but I don't want to let that point go just because I think that's quite important. I mean, like, yes, for centuries, probably, this has been the thing of, oh, the person who he is in the office is not the same person who he is at home.

[12:20:07] So, yes, is it a green light directly to Porter that they're going to turn a blind eye to this if it continues into the future. It seems to be, you have to wonder if anybody brought this up to Hope Hicks when she started dating him as well.

But the other thing is that, look, this is the White House. This is the -- an example-setting institution for the entire country. More concerning about if it's a green light to Rob Porter is, if it's a green light to other people who are watching this play out --

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: That you can actually have all this recorded and people don't care.

KING: And to your point, one of the former girlfriends called Don McGahn when she found out he was dating Hope Hicks and said, you've got a problem on your hands, clearly.

HEMDON: But that's what I would say is that the people who were making a moral judgement was the White House. And their moral judgement was that these accusations, these accusations, were not disqualifying for someone no matter how competent they were, no matter how qualified they were for that job. And any time that he spends with that interim clearance when they knew of the seriousness of the allegation was a judgment on their part.

Now, that judgment may have changed when the photos became public and -- but we also see that Chief of Staff Kelly made another moral decision to defend him after those photos came out. So this was a continued series of judgments on which the White House was saying that these serious allegations that the communications spokesman calls credible yesterday, that these credible allegations were not invalidating. That is (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And, again, what you see -- what you see is another case -- I'll give you Michael Flynn as a very different issue but the same example. Only when it is public -- only when the embarrassing behavior, reckless behavior in this case, reprehensible behavior is public do they act.

I just -- one other point. Rob Porter was clearly aware of this. He went to Don McGahn early on and said there may be a problem in my background check. Listen here, this is one of his ex-wives, Jennie Willoughby, who wrote a blog -- she did not name Porter in the blog -- but she wrote a blog about her experience. She says when he took the job at the White House, he tried to get her to change it or take it down.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "ANDERSON COOPER 360" : Did he ever ask you to deny?

JENNIE WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: I went back and forth with him for an hour or so about what language I would be comfortable with, and the ultimately the language that he asked I wasn't comfortable with, and he came out with that statement less than an hour later.

COOPER: Can you say what he wanted you to -- to (INAUDIBLE)?

WILLOUGHBY: I don't remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of, the post does not accurately depict my marriage.

COOPER: It does sound like he was asking you to deny what you had --

WILLOUGHBY: He was asking me to downplay it.


KING: A calculated effort to try to -- and to help make this go away.

DEMIRJIAN: To improve -- and to improve the image that was there online that people could very easily connect the dots over and what was going to be there to see.

I mean it's -- I know you just drew the comparison with the Flynn situation. What -- what makes this one, in a way, not to excuse the Flynn situation, about that having to get public too before this did, but we're in a moment, in a year right now where we're, you know, as a country, as a -- beyond the country, talking about how this sort of thing that is arguably criminal, you know, is not OK to treat women in a way that is disparaging even before you throw the punch, right?

So like this is -- this is so out there in terms of a publicly adjudicated thing that is -- that is -- that we've been moving past in the fact that it still has to go through four levels of warning and then actually hit newspapers before you start to see any sort of crack or shift.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: That's why that is so publicly shocking.

Flynn situations don't happen every day. This is a far more commonplace and far more publicly aired discussion that we're having.

KING: It's a great -- it's a great point. Everybody hold the next thought. We'll continue this conversation in just a minute.

We're told now again the president's angry about it, he's disappointed in his staff. He's working the phones. More on that and some great reporting from Eliana on what the president thought of Rob Porter before he learned about all this.


[12:27:52] KING: Here's the biggest issue for a White House in damage control mode after the sudden resignation of Rob Porter. An angry president who's working the phones and asking allies if his West Wing team is up to the challenge. CNN is told the president feels blindsided by the allegations Rob Porter physically abused two now ex- wives. And that those on his angry list include the chief of staff, John Kelly, and communications director, Hope Hicks, who was in a relationship with Porter. Both Kelly and Hicks initially scrambled to defend Porter. In calls with friends and advisers outside of the White House, the president is getting mixed advice. Some Trump allies who don't like General Kelly to begin with see a chance now to push him out. Others argue, even if he mishandled the Porter scandal, Kelly has brought enough -- much greater discipline to the West Wing and should say.

Another thing we are told didn't sit well with the president, this rare moment of humility at the Trump White House podium.


RAJ SHAH, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's fair to say that it -- that, you know, we all could have done better over the last few hours -- or last few days in dealing with this situation.


KING: True. I shouldn't say it that way, though, actually. It's good for him to stand up and -- they don't often say that, especially in this administration. Most administrations don't like to say, we didn't get this right. This administration has particularly not stood up and said, hey, we didn't get this right. There were some other things at the briefing that we can talk about, if you wish, but at least he stood up there and said, yes, yes, we didn't get this right.

Now the president is mad. Now the president's making phone calls. The president saying, you know, did Chief of Staff Kelly blow this? How do I deal with this internally? What should we make of that?

JOHNSON: The president doesn't like bad press and he's getting a whole lot of bad press.

KING: That's all it is. That's not -- he's not asking, how did this guy get one of the most trusted jobs in the White House? He's just saying, why am I getting bad press?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that's -- that's his primary reaction. He doesn't like to see his chief of staff getting bad press. He doesn't like to see his administration getting bad press. He doesn't like to see his communications director getting bad press. And there's been a whole lot of salacious coverage on an issue that has been front and center for the past few months. I think that makes him tremendously angry.

HEMDON: I would say he also doesn't like to take blame. And he is now outwardly looking at who can he blame for that bad press and has isolated Hicks, has isolated Kelly as the people to do that, even though, obviously, he plays a role in this as well.

[12:30:04] KNOX: There's a recurring pattern, too, of this president reaching to outside advisers to ask whether his inside advisers are doing a good job.

KING: Right.

KNOX: We've heard that since even before he took office. And so that's -- that's a dynamic here too.