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Justice Department Exit; Interview With Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego; Vice President Pence, Sister of North Korean Leader Sit Together at Olympics; President Trump Defends Aide Accused of Domestic Abuse. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 18:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And damage control. Handling secrets. We have new information tonight about dozens of administration officials, including Jared Kushner, who are working without full security clearances. Why are they still allowed access to sensitive information?

And icy reception. Vice President Pence gives the cold shoulder to Kim Jong-un's sister, as the North Koreans get a warm welcome from the South at the Olympic Games. Is the Kim regime winning the public relations war?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including the surprise exit of the third-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rachel Brand.

We're learning more about her departure and what it could potentially mean for the Russia investigation.

Also this hour, I will get reaction from Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego. Our correspondents and analysts, they are standing by.

But, first, let's quickly go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

Evan, what is the latest on Rachel Brand stepping down?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're told that Rachel Brand is planning to step down as the number three official at the Justice Department.

Normally, we don't pay a lot of attention to the associate attorney general, but there's been a lot of speculation about her role simply because of all the focus on Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Mueller investigation, the Russia investigation, and whether or not President Trump decides to either fire or forces him out from office.

So, if Rosenstein were out, the third -- the person next in line to oversee the investigation would be the associate attorney general and that was Rachel Brand. Now we're told she's stepping down to take a job at Wal-Mart, Wolf.

So, this is a big job obviously for her. But we know that there's been a lot of pressure on whether or not she would be able to handle overseeing this investigation. It's not the type of job that she's done before. She's never tried cases. So, there's been a lot of speculation as to whether or not she would even stay in that position and oversee this investigation.

Obviously now the question is, who would be next in line? Right now if the job is not filled, and let's say Rosenstein were to step down or be forced out, Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, would be next in line. Obviously, he is somebody who is very important for the Trump administration.

He stepped in to enforce the travel ban at the beginning of this administration, Wolf. The problem for him, though, is that he is a former partner at Jones Day law firm, a big firm here in Washington, and Jones Day has been handling a lot of the legal work for the Trump campaign.

So the question is whether or not he could even oversee the Mueller investigation should Rod Rosenstein have to step aside or be forced out by the president.

Obviously, there's a lot of moving parts so this. Right now, we're told that Rachel Brand simply got an offer of a lifetime. We have talked to a couple friends of hers. One of them told me it was a job that comes -- she basically said, this is a job of a lifetime, it doesn't come along very often, it's a big job at Wal-Mart and it's a job that obviously she didn't feel he could turn down, Wolf.

BLITZER: So who picks her successor? Would it be Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general? does the president get involved in this?

PEREZ: Well, this is a presidential appointment. This is something the Senate would have to confirm, so the president, I assume would consult with Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, on picking someone who would take this job.

Again, the importance of this spot is not usually something we pay a lot of attention to, the number three official at the Justice Department, but there's obviously been a lot of attention on it simply because we know the president is very angry at Rod Rosenstein, has spoken about the need perhaps to get him out.

We know Republican groups are now running ads urging that either he resign or that the president fire him. So there's a lot of pressure on Rod Rosenstein. The question has been, if Rod Rosenstein goes, what happens next? And Rachel Brand was the next person in line to oversee this investigation if that were to come to pass.

Obviously, now, we don't know when she's leaving, but the plan is for her to go take this job at Wal-Mart. BLITZER: Clearly a lot of tension over the top levels of the Justice

Department.

PEREZ: Very unusual.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Yes, but when the president of the United States is criticizing the attorney general for recusing himself, criticizing the deputy attorney general, refusing to give a vote of confidence, that creates a lot of tension.

PEREZ: A lot of turmoil, and especially just nine months in on the job for her to be leaving, it's a very unusual position.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Evan Perez, with the latest.

Also breaking tonight, President Trump is managing to make a White House scandal even worse by insisting on defending a former aide accused of domestic violence. The president invited reporters into the Oval Office today to praise, yes, to praise, Rob Porter and to stress his claim of innocence without even or ever mentioning the alleged victims, the two ex-wives.

[18:05:12]

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us right now.

Jim, you have new information on the fallout, and it's pretty significant, from all of this.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The White House is finishing this week knocking down reports that Chief of Staff John Kelly is resigning or that he's offered to resign. But, Wolf, we are told by our sources that at some point today the chief of staff did have a conversation with the president about stepping down.

Of course, that stopped short of an offer of resignation. That did not occur, according to our sources. But as you were saying a few moments ago, the president did finally start talking about the resignation of his top aide, Rob Porter.

The president, though, sounded as if he was defending Porter and not really saying much of anything about his alleged victims.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump finally broke his silence about the resignation of his former staff secretary, Rob Porter, but it was hardly a MeToo moment.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I found out about it recently and I was surprised by it, but we certainly wish him well. It's obviously a tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it.

ACOSTA: The president said nothing about the women who say Porter abused them, but he made a point to highlight Porter's denials.

TRUMP: He says he's innocent. And I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent. So, you will have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well. Did a very good job while he was at the White House.

ACOSTA: That sounded eerily similar to the president's comments about failed GOP candidate Roy Moore, who faced accusations of sexual abuse.

TRUMP: He totally denies it. He says it didn't happen. And you have to listen to him ago.

ACOSTA: The White House is still engaged in damage control after the Porter scandal broke. Chief of Staff John Kelly, who released a statement heaping praise on Porter, eventually issue a memo that adopted a different tone to White House aides, writing: "While we are all processing the shocking and troubling allegations made against a former White House staffer, I want you to know that we all take matters of domestic violence seriously. Domestic violence is abhorrent and has no place in our society."

Kelly also held a meeting about Porter with staffers where he insisted, "I got his resignation."

But that's not in line with the facts. And sources tell CNN Kelly has known about the allegations facing Porter for months. Kelly was still backing Porter when the White House first commented publicly on the matter.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I can tell you Rob has been effective in his role as staff secretary and the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.

ACOSTA: Sources tell CNN Porter first informed White House counsel Don McGahn about his past a year ago. That was when Porter's ex-wives began speaking to the FBI.

By the spring of last year, the FBI provided a preliminary report to White House security officials. Then in the fall, Porter was interviewed by the FBI. It was in November that McGahn, Kelly, and another deputy, Joe Hagin, were made aware of Porter's domestic issues. In recent weeks, CNN has learned one of Porter's ex- girlfriends has told McGahn she had concerns about Porter's relationship with Communications Director Hope Hicks.

One of Porter's ex-wives told her story to Anderson Cooper.

JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: The reality is, he's not a monster. He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man, and he's deeply troubled and angry and violent. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive.

ACOSTA: Democrats are seizing on the Porter saga to argue the president and his team just don't get it.

JOSEPH BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just before I walked on stage, a statement from the president saying he wishes him luck, he has so much talent.

That's like saying that axe murderer out there, he's a great painter. Think -- think -- translate this into everyday terms. Is there any other crime -- and it's a crime -- would there be an explanation that the reason why we shouldn't pay attention to the transgression is because they're good at something?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, in all these discussions about the fate of Chief of Staff John Kelly, we should note that one name that keeps popping is up Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as a possible replacement for Kelly.

Of course, at this point, that's just talk going on inside the West Wing, because John Kelly has not offered his resignation, according to the White House.

Now, on another front, Wolf, the other shoe that we have been waiting to drop here at the end of the week is this House Intelligence Committee memo from the Democratic side of that panel on surveillance issues pertaining to the Russia investigation.

That's the Adam Schiff memo that is expected to be released by the White House in response to the one that was released by Devin Nunes. The Devin Nunes memo obviously called into question FBI practices in the context of that Russia investigation.

[18:10:15]

The Nunes memo was welcomed over here at the White House. The Schiff memo has not been welcomed over here at the White House, although all weekend long they have been saying they have been running this through the same process, and they plan to have a decision on this soon.

Earlier today, Wolf, the president talked about releasing a memo and doing that soon. White House officials are not explaining what the president meant by that, but earlier today he met with the FBI director, top Justice Department official and the White House Counsel's Office about the fate of the memo, and they are promising a decision on that soon.

They're telling us to stay tuned, that the president is weighing his options at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what he decides. Jim Acosta, thank you.

The Rob Porter scandal certainly has put the spotlight on the Trump administration, Trump administration officials especially who don't have full security clearance, but still have access to sensitive classified information.

We have new information on that breaking right now.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Myself and my colleagues Sara Murray and Gloria Borger, we're told some 30 to 40 White House officials and Trump political appointees are still operating with interim security clearances, not full security clearances, extremely unusual more than a year into a presidential administration.

Among them, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in law, as well as the now former Staff Secretary Rob Porter, which we learned of course in the last 24 hours. Now, the White House has claimed this is the product really of just a long and bureaucratic approval process for these security clearances.

But in fact we're told by a number sources that this is, one, extremely unusual this late in an administration. Early in an administration, you might have a number of people with interim security clearances, 13 months in, very unusual. And I'm told that by both current and former intelligence officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.

More importantly, we are told that among the issues behind these delays are likely to be continuing questions, both from law enforcement and the intelligence community as to whether these officials should be granted full security clearances. That doesn't apply to all the people who are operating under interim security clearances. We have spoken to lawyers who represent people in this process.

And for some of them, it's because of the nature of their background. You do have a lot of unusual hires, people without government experience in the Trump administration. So this doesn't apply to all of them. But for some of them, we are told that there are still lingering questions, lingering investigations, background investigations behind these delays.

And the whole picture of this, Wolf, is certainly very unusual to have that number, a dozen, 30 to 40 White House officials close to the president operating in the administration this late in an administration with still those temporary, what were meant to be temporary security clearances.

BLITZER: And does having an grim or temporary security clearance pose a serious potential kind of security risk?

SCIUTTO: Well, not necessarily.

It depends on really the reason for not being granted a full permanent security clearance. And we saw with someone like Rob Porter that that was a real and genuine question with potential risk, because the fact that he'd had these spousal abuse allegations going back, not only does it go to character, which is relevant in these background checks, but it also goes to a potential blackmail risk if it's information that is not out there, and it's something that a potential adversary could threaten to put out there and thereby make you a security risk.

So certainly not for all of those involved but there are circumstances where that would be a security risk. And, listen, these background checks are very thorough, and they look for questions, they look for weaknesses and they look for things that could be exploited.

And we know that this is not all a bureaucratic process, as the White House claims, that for some people who don't have those full security clearances, it's because there are still questions that need to be resolved in the background clearance process.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting for us. Jim, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Joining us now, Congressman Ruben Gallego. He's a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want to get through a lot of issues.

First, if the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had been removed from his position, it would have been Rachel Brand who would have had to make a decision on what action to take at the end of the special counsel's investigation.

What does her departure mean for the overall Russia investigation?

GALLEGO: Well, I think, for many of us, it does make us a little worried.

We are starting to see the exit of all these quiet professionals that have been very necessary to keep in the Department of Justice and the FBI, essentially our justice system, as nonpartisan as possible.

And what you see is the president and his allies both in Congress and in the Senate, they're essentially trying to scare away these professionals and trying to make essentially their jobs almost impossible.

[18:15:05]

And with the end -- the end goal obviously to weaken the Department of Justice, to make it an arm essentially of the Republican Party. And that's why you are going to start seeing these quiet professionals that are leaving.

It's very dangerous. Obviously, if the deputy attorney general is fired or is -- resigns, we do fear that his replacement will essentially be put in there to basically protect the president and stop the full independent investigation that is being conducted by Mueller. And that is a problem.

BLITZER: How concerning, Congressman, is it, this news, you just heard Jim Sciutto report it, that 30 to 40 Trump administration officials still don't have their full security clearance more than a year into this administration? How worried are you about that?

GALLEGO: I would be really worried.

In the White House, especially the executive branch, and even what we see in Congress, there is a lot of classified material, especially classified material that should only be reviewed by the people and handled by people that are trained and have trusted backgrounds.

Obviously, there are some things that can be handled by people that have some level of interim security background or security clearance, but anything above top secret is a problem, let alone that the fact that you have situations where you could be exposing these men or women to blackmail.

We know, for example, already that Jared Kushner even through his security clearance has lied multiple times. We don't know his total -- all of his forward entanglements when it comes to money in his family corporations and who he solicited money for, and yet he still has security clearance.

And it's something I think that worries many for us, because, again, we don't know who can be potentially compromised and whether or not they know they're being compromised. It does not necessarily mean that it's an action they know willingly.

And that's why you have such strict handling procedures around top secret, classified material, as well as who actually has a clearance. But having this many in the White House at this point really is a failure on John Kelly's part.

He really needs to clean the shop there and get these people to get the security clearance they need or they need to move on.

BLITZER: Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, he has interim or temporary security clearance. Still doesn't have the full permanent security clearance, even though he's working on very sensitive issues in the Middle East and elsewhere.

What message, Congressman, is the White House sending with its response to these domestic violence allegations against the now former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter?

GALLEGO: Me, I think at this point we should all really not be surprised about the response from the White House.

You have a president who has been accused by multiple women, I think we're in the teens, of sexual assault. You have a president that was recorded on TV essentially saying that he grabs women by their genitals. And if we have any idea whether this man respects women or not, I think that has been answered with many times. I think at the end of the day, the most important piece that I think a lot of us have to ask is, where is John Kelly. How did John Kelly allow this to happen?

And to continue to live in denial that John Kelly is somehow -- is not complicit in everything that happened really shows that the president doesn't actually care. So, the president should hold John Kelly responsible for all of this.

BLITZER: Should Kelly resign?

GALLEGO: Kelly should resign. Kelly should have resigned for many other reasons, but the fact that the president hasn't forced him to resign, considering that he not only was complicit, but, you know, even lied about the occurrence of sequence of events after he discovered what the information, really tells you that John Kelly has lost all integrity and should step down.

BLITZER: On another sensitive issue, a very important issue, you voted against the budget deal overnight. What's the path forward for the hundreds of thousands of dreamers out there?

GALLEGO: Well, the path forward is hopefully a compromise.

We know that the Senate right now, Democrats and Republicans, have been working diligently on a compromise that's going to provide some level of border security in exchange for some stabilization, legalization of our dreamer community.

Where we have a problem, though, is really in the House. Speaker Paul Ryan has shown zero leadership, has continued to move the goalposts, and has really not provided any pathway for legislation to come down to the floor in order for us to provide a good bill that we think the president will sign.

Right now, his excuse that he won't do anything until he gets 60 votes from the House and then he gets assurance from the president that he can sign -- so, in essence, he's kind of giving up his role as speaker and our role as Congress to actually craft any legislation.

And any efforts that he wants to put down are largely being done by the conservative wing of his party, which will automatically get voted down unanimously by both Democrats and Republicans.

[18:20:04]

So, Speaker Ryan needs to come to reality. He needs to stop being afraid of his -- extreme wing of his Republican Caucus and really show that he's a true leader and allow an open process for us to get a compromise bill on to the floor of the House.

BLITZER: Congressman Ruben Gallego, thanks so much for joining us.

GALLEGO: Thank you. BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the breaking news, the

sudden exit of the third-ranking official over at the Trump Justice Department and what it could mean for the Russia investigation.

And the security clearance problem over at the White House, as CNN learns new information about Jared Kushner and dozens, yes, dozens, of other officials in the Trump administration. Our experts are standing by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:25:19]

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, a surprise exit from the Justice Department that could potentially have an impact on the Russia investigation.

Let's talk more about Rachel Brand leaving her job as the third- ranking official under Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein.

Let's bring in our CNN law enforcement analyst, the former FBI special agent Josh Campbell. We're joined by our chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

So what might, Jeffrey, Rachel Brand's departure from the Justice Department mean potentially for the overall Russia investigation?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: This is a big deal, Wolf. And, frankly, it's just weird.

You know, I think we can all recognize that Rod Rosenstein's job is hanging by a thread. The White House spokesman can say everything they like, but if you just look at the president when he's asked about Rosenstein, you can see the steam coming out of his ears.

So the fact that he may be gone means that his successor is a very important person. That person would be supervising the Mueller investigation, would be the person asked to fire Robert Mueller if it comes to that.

Up until today, I think all of us assumed that Rachel Brand would remain in that job. She's a very distinguished lawyer. I knew her when she worked in the Bush Justice Department on Supreme Court nominations. She worked in the Chamber of Commerce. She's only been in this job for nine months.

And Washington lawyers wait their whole careers to have a job like associate attorney general. The fact that she's leaving -- and I don't care how good the job is at Wal-Mart. It's odd that she's leaving, and there has to be a story there.

BLITZER: Yes, after only working there only for nine months in the Justice Department in this current position. That's a pretty short tenure, and especially in the aftermath of what the president was asked last week, do you have confidence in Rod Rosenstein, and he said, "I will let you figure that one out," certainly no vote of confidence there.

All the repeated attacks on the Justice Department, do you think that played a role in her decision?

TOOBIN: Well, Wolf, I don't know. But it certainly raises that possibility.

She had been an island of stability in this Justice Department. The president can't stand Jeff Sessions. You saw what he just said about Rod Rosenstein. Rachel Brand is a Justice Department veteran. She has impeccable credentials for her job. She had custody of certain issues in the Justice Department that were relatively uncontroversial.

It certainly suggests that there was something going on that there that she didn't like and that she didn't want a part of anymore, so she left after just nine months. And that's just unusual when you look at the tenure of people in that -- at that level in the Justice Department.

BLITZER: Josh, on another very sensitive story, you heard Jim Sciutto's reporting, how unusual is it that dozens, dozens of Trump administration officials at the White House, including Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, still don't have their permanent security clearances?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: As our colleague Jim Sciutto reported, it was very unusual, and I would say it's actually potentially troubling, and here's why.

It's not an usual for an FBI background information to last up to a year. That's not unusual. It's very thorough. They literally go through your entire life to try to determine, is this person suitable for access to classified investigation?

What is troubling is, the longer the investigation goes, it could mean the FBI has potentially found items that they're trying to mitigate, they're trying to look through. It could mean, especially with this administration, perhaps they have people with particularly complex backgrounds, with maybe financial ties, maybe foreign travel, other associates, that they're just having to work through.

Not necessarily a negative at this stage, but the longer it goes on, it's potentially troubling.

BLITZER: What lessons should we learn from what has been going on right now?

CAMPBELL: It's a good question if you look at the entire Porter situation and if you step back from this particular case for a moment.

I think we have an opportunity to make government better. And what I mean, by that is, if you look at the background investigation form that an applicant will fill out, the SF-86, which the government, the FBI uses to start that background, it's very thorough, 130 pages long.

There is a difference here in what we compare domestic violence and other offenses such as firearms, explosives. In some of these instances, we have seen the question, have you ever been charged with a particular incident? Have you been charged?

But with domestic violence, for some reason, there's a double standard. The question here is, have you ever been convicted? And I would suggest to you that the FBI would want to know as they're questioning you whether you have been charged, someone has accused you of actually engaging in this type of activity, not just, have you been convicted?

It goes to your suitability, to your integrity. If you look, this form was last updated in November 2016. I would argue that it's time for an update.

1830



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... activity, not just have you been convicted. It goes to your suitability to your integrity. If you look, this form was last updated in November 2016. I would argue that it's time for an update.

[18:30:11] BLITZER: Everybody stand -- yes, very quickly, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Well, there's just another issue. It's also an old boy's network. If you have a powerful patron, they will let you stay there with a temporary security clearance. But if you don't have a powerful patron, they'll make you leave. And that's whey Jared Kushner can remain as long as he wants, because he's the president's son-in-law.

BLITZER: And Rob Porter stayed for more than a year with a temporary security clearance, even though he was handing some of the most sensitive information out there.

Everybody stand by. There's much more reaction we're getting to Rachel Brand's sudden exit from the Justice Department. Could it have a domino effect in the overall Russia investigation?

And the president's truly stunning defense of Rob Porter. What was he thinking when he made a point of praising his former aide and ignoring the women who accuse him of domestic abuse?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As you probably know, he says he's innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent. So you'll have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:35:53] BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the third- ranking Justice Department official calling it quits in a surprise move that's prompting new speculation about the future of the Russia investigation and the fate of the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Let's bring in our analysts and specialists to assess what's going on.

Rebecca Berg, the position of associate attorney general requires Senate confirmation. What will that process look like? They've got to name someone to take over for Rachel Brand.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right, Wolf. It's certainly going to be a very delicate process. It starts with the president. He needs to name someone to fill that position, nominate that person for the Senate to confirm.

But one point I would make is that the Senate majority for Republicans is even narrower now than when Rachel Brand was confirmed. They now only have 51 Republicans in the Senate. John McCain, obviously, has been very ill, may or may not be able to vote on this confirmation. And so it's going to be a very fine line that Republicans and the White House need to walk here to nominate someone.

And, of course, the very controversial moment when this nominee is going to inevitably get questions about the Russia investigation, about the independence of that investigation and how they would protect it from the president, potentially.

BLITZER: You know, Ron Brownstein, we've seen a lot of tumult, a lot of movement at the Justice Department over this past year. Rachel Brand is leaving to become the general counsel over at Wal-Mart after only nine months in her current position.

Could the recent attacks on the integrity of these top Justice Department officials have played a role, influenced her willingness to leave?

Let me put a graphic up on the screen. And you can see all these top Justice Department officials are gone: the fired acting attorney general, Sally Yates; the recused attorney general, Jeff Sessions, removed himself from the Russia investigation; the fired FBI director, James Comey; the FBI chief of staff, Jim Rybicki resigned; the deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe, resign; and now the associate attorney general, Rachel Brand, resigned.

That is not a healthy environment.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, no. Look, as -- if Jeff Toobin would not speculate on her individual motivations a few minutes ago, I'm not going to -- I'm not foolish enough to rush in where angels fear to tread.

But I do think it's clear that the Justice Department and the FBI are the premiere example of how the president, essentially, has refused to accept the norms, the historic norms on the limitations of the president's direct influence over the law enforcement agencies of the country.

And all of that turmoil that you see, I think, is directly related to his desire to have the FBI and the Justice Department view itself, in essence, as an extension of his will. To view themselves as needing to declare personal loyalty to him in a way that is far outside the boundaries of the way other presidents have treated the Department of Justice historically.

So when you consider that, it's hard to imagine that was not a factor in this, although obviously, we have not heard from her or even her close associates yet on exactly what motivated this decision.

BLITZER: As you know, Jeffrey, the president, he wants loyalty from these top Justice Department officials and FBI officials, which is pretty unusual.

TOOBIN: This -- this is the classic definition of how this president is violating the norms, not the laws, but the norms that other presidents have followed.

Presidents don't interfere in criminal investigations. Presidents don't direct the Department of Justice to investigate anyone, particularly their political enemies. But in tweets and in statements, this president has been railing about how Hillary Clinton should be thrown in jail, how James Comey violated the law.

This is something that is really outside the modern experience in terms of how the Justice Department has been managed by the White House. Whether that led the Rachel Brand's departure, I really couldn't say. Maybe she got some great job at Wal-Mart that she couldn't -- simply couldn't resist. That just seems odd to me, given how these jobs are treasured and such -- what a short tenure she's had as associate attorney general.

BLITZER: Yes. Good point.

You know, Sean Turner, we're seeing now -- you saw Jim Sciutto's report -- 30 or 40 officials in the Trump administration right now still don't have permanent security clearances. You worked in national security in the U.S. intelligence community for a long time before joining us as our national security analyst. What does that say to you?

[18:40:20] SEAN TURNER: Well, it's quite disturbing, actually. Look, Wolf, if we were talking about being six months into the administration and we were talking about a handful of people who had limited access to classified information, that might be understandable.

But we're more than a year into this administration, and we have dozens of people who still have access to classified information. And in the intelligence community, we talk about points of failure when it comes to protecting sensitive information. These individuals represent a number of points of failure, because we don't know what's in their background that could possibly cause them to be, you know, exploited by foreign adversaries.

So I think we've gotten to a point where it's time for John Kelly to call for a stand-down on access to classified information by anyone who does not have a completed security clearance. He needs to bring in the FBI. He needs to sit down with them and needs to go over each and every one of these files and find out where they are in these investigations and then make some determinations as to whether or not these individuals should continue to have access to this.

BLITZER: And you heard in the last hour Leon Panetta, former CIA director, former defense secretary, say to me, at a minimum, Kelly should tell these individuals who can't get permanent security clearance, go on a leave of absence until you sort this out. But you're not working in the White House until you get them.

What are you you hearing, Kaitlan, about Jared Kushner? He's a senior adviser to the president, happens to be his son-in-law, as well. He still doesn't have permanent security clearances, just an interim clearance. What are you hearing about that?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And that is something that comes up time and time again. The White House says they won't comment on why these people don't have their full security clearances.

And certainly, not all of these people who don't have their security clearances are not for nefarious reasons. But Rob Porter is the exact case that shows you why this can be such a problem when someone is acting in the interim security clearance has a wide range of access to all these classified materials, every single piece of paper that touched the president's desk. Someone who has these allegations in his past, someone who could be so easily blackmailed. And that's exactly right. That's why we should look at why the people who are operating on interim security clearances, why they are.

TOOBIN: Wolf, you used an interesting term there. You said Jared Kushner happens to be the president's son-in-law. That's his only qualification for the job. He's a moderately successful real-estate developer that inherited everything he ever had. He's the president's son-in-law.

The president is insisting that he work there, and the fact that he doesn't have a security clearance is incredibly significant. Why doesn't he have a security clearance? And why is he allowed to have classified information?

TURNER: Yes. And I think it's more significant, because if you've never held a security clearance, then you know, there's -- the understanding of what's in your background that might be problematic is very difficult.

Look, I hold a security clearance, because I occasionally have access to classified information. But I'd been in government, I was in government for more than 25 years. A lot of these individuals come from business. They come from other walks of life where they've never held a security clearance before.

So it's not just about reupping a security clearance for someone who's already been vetted. We know nothing about the backgrounds of some of these individuals.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's a lot more that's happening right now. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:09] BLITZER: We are following the breaking news: the president undermining White House attempts at damage control in the Rob Porter scandal. The president publicly defending his former aide, despite allegations of domestic assault and abuse.

We're back with our analysts.

We wish him absolutely only the best. What was he thinking, the president, when he made this statement, Rebecca?

BERG: Wolf, it just gives us such a picture into the way Donald Trump views the world. He wasn't thinking in this moment about the women who were victims of this abuse, he didn't even mention the women who were victims of this abuse. His sympathy was reserved solely for his now former aide who he said he added in these comments that he denied the allegations, seemingly giving weight to that denial over the on- the-record statements we have heard from these women, these multiple ex-wives.

And it's really -- it's a pattern we've seen from Donald Trump when Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes were accused of long-term sexual harassment, sexual abuse, he called them good people, he talked about their merits. Of Roger Ailes he said, I'm sure it was very friendly his treatment toward these women, referring to Bill O'Reilly, he said, I don't think Bill did anything wrong.

So, there's this pattern of Donald Trump defending men who are accused of these things and never mentioning the women.

BLITZER: Ron, go ahead.

BROWNSTEIN: No, I think -- I think not only the president but the White House feels boxed in these when allegations emerged, Roy Moore or Porter in this case, the same kind of response, because once you gown go down the road of saying, yes, I believe these women who made these allegations, you immediately open the question of what about the women who have made allegations of comparable seriousness against Donald Trump. And I think that both he and they have felt that they cannot give an inch because it instantly calls into question his own behavior which has been, you know, questioned on so many fronts.

[18:50:05] I would point out, you know, historically -- I have felt historically the gender gap is overrated as a force-driving electoral outcomes that other things like education levels and marital status and geography matter more. But if you look at what is developing here in 2017 and 2018, you've had African-American women absolutely at the forefront of the Democratic gains in Virginia and Alabama.

You have a Marist poll out today with Donald Trump's approval rating among college educated white women down to 29 percent. That is an almost unimaginable number when you consider that Mitt Romney won them as recently as 2012.

And even among those blue collar white women where he does better, he's still doing better, but he's now under 50 percent. I mean, there is something that seems to be coalescing among women about the agenda, but even more kind of the behavior and values that the President Trump is projecting that could be the key to Democratic gains in 2018.

BLITZER: Before we go, I want to switch gears for a moment.

Jeffrey, I want to ask you about the CNN original series, "The Radical History of Patty Hearst" that premieres tonight here on CNN, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. You are the executive producer. Tell us about this truly incredible story.

TOOBIN: Wolf, you are not old enough to remember the Patty Hearts story.

BLITZER: No.

TOOBIN: So, I want to explain it to you, in 1974, Patty Hearst was a member of one of the most famous families the world. The Hearst family, her grandfather was William Randolph Hearst and she was kidnapped from her home in Berkeley, California, in a horribly violent kidnapping. And a couple of months later she shocked the world by becoming, by announcing that she had joined with her kidnappers in the Symbionese Liberation Army.

This story unfolds over six hours. It's not tonight, Wolf. It's actually Sunday night at 9:00 for two hours. Then each subsequent Sunday for two more hours. It's six hours of documentaries.

And you have to take it from me, a totally unbiased source that it is great documentary.

BLITZER: Yes.

TOOBIN: And it's really interesting and fascinating and we have lots of archival footage and interviews with people who haven't spoken before. It's great.

BLITZER: Certainly is. And we're looking forward to, have heard all about it from my parents when I was a very little boy. They told me all about it.

"The Radical Story of Patty Hearst", it premieres Sunday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, Sunday night, not tonight, only here on CNN.

Just ahead, the vice president saw a rather uncomfortable close encounter with Kim Jong-un's sister. Did the North Korean make things tense for Mike Pence at the Winter Games?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:13] BLITZER: New tonight, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea on display at the opening of the Winter Olympics. The Vice President Mike Pence ignoring Kim Jong-un's sister as they were sitting just a few feet apart. Pence is trying to keep the pressure on the Kim regime over its nuclear defiance even as South Korea rolls out the welcome mat for its estranged and dangerous neighbor.

Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is traveling with the vice president. She's joining us from Seoul.

Elise, is South Korea's outreach to North Korea hurting Pence's strategy?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the vice president would say no. I mean, he was in, you know, South Korea and Japan this week trying to deny what he called a North Korean propaganda victory, trying to show the strength of the alliance between Japan and South Korea. And also trying to keep the focus on North Korea's behavior, not only missile and nuclear threat, but also he met with North Korea defectors who have been tortured, who've been in prison camps. And he said that's the right message to not keep the focus on this, you know, Olympic euphoria.

But it was a little uncomfortable. There has been a lot of speculation this week about whether the vice president would meet with the North Korean delegation.

I think the vice president thought that yesterday might have not been the most appropriate place. He didn't want to have pleasantries. He wanted to say what he said was a difficult message about North Korean behavior.

And that's probably in the middle of the light show where the dancing dragon probably not the right time. There could be another opportunity today when the vice president is at Olympic village. And then, of course, President Moon won't be meeting with the North Korean delegation here in Seoul.

BLITZER: Is there any evidence, Elise, that the president's tough talk against North Korea is working?

LABOTT: Well, I think what it might have done, Wolf, is to kind of drown out a little bit of this North Korean propaganda that this new gentler face with the sister making nice with South Korea. But people were pretty excited about the prospect of her coming here. President Moon will be hosting her for lunch later. It's very possible she might be inviting President Moon to North Korea.

And so, I think Vice President Pence would say his message did get through. He was sitting there in the box with President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the three of them together trying to send that message of a steadfast alliance. But it was a little bit of a, you know, mixed message in terms of that imagery, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of drama unfolding. Elise, thanks so much for that report.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.