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CNN: White House Baffled By Trump Comments On Porter; Sanders, Kelly Disagree On Porter Resignation; CNN: 30 To 40 Senior Officials Lack Full Security Clearances; Any Minute: Trump Unveils Infrastructure Plan. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 11:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. We could hear from President Trump as he gets ready to unveil his long-awaited plan to repair and update the nation's infrastructure. But even members of his own party are balking at the costs. And one top Democrat says the plan is crumbling even faster than aging roads and bridges.

And the president stokes the firestorm over Rob Porter, the top aide who resigned amid allegations that he physically abused his two ex- wives. The president goes off script, praising Porter and seemingly casting doubt on the entire "Me Too Movement."

We have a lot to cover with all of this. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us. So, Kaitlan, you have some new reporting on the reaction of the White House staff at the president's remarks. What are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Brianna. It has been six days now since Rob Porter first resigned over these allegations. And the White House has still been unable to give us a consistent explanation as to who knew what and when about these allegations.

And now another source of confusion is coming from inside the own White House with the president's own staffers questioning why he is expressing two very different sentiments over Rob Porter.

We're told by aides that the president has been very critical of Porter privately, but then publicly he's expressing basically the opposite sentiment because on Friday you saw him in the oval -- in the oval office cite Porter's denials in maintaining his innocence and also the president wished him well in his future endeavors.

On Saturday, the president raised a lot of eyebrows when he tweeted, "People's lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false, some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused, life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as due process? Now, that raised a lot of eyebrows for several reasons. The president appeared to cast doubt on the women who have accused rob Porter as well as that second official who resigned from the White House on Friday amid domestic abuse allegations.

So, we will see the president here in the next hour as he's unveiling that $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but aides inside the White House are still wondering where the president truly stands on this issue. So, we'll be waiting to see if he makes any more remarks on this -- Brianna.

KEILAR: We sure will. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you. I do want to dig deeper on this on the Rob Porter abuse scandal and the White House's handling of it. We have Jim Schultz with us, CNN legal commentator as well as a former White House lawyer and former special assistant to President Trump.

Jim, thanks for joining us to give us your insight here, especially on the Chief of Staff John Kelly because he has said that he demanded that Rob Porter resigned 40 minutes after he learned about the photos. But that's not what the White House press secretary said last Wednesday. Here is what Sarah Sanders said.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that was a personal decision that Rob made and one that he was not pressured to do but one that he made on his own.


KEILAR: So which account, Jim, makes more sense to you?

JIM SCHULTZ, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it is a process associated with all of this. In the clearance process generally as it relates to FBI clearances and security clearances, the FBI comes in, and the folks who join the administration at the beginning get temporary clearances.

KEILAR: No, we're not talking -- Jim, I do want to talk about clearances for sure with you. First, I want to talk about this reaction and so you have John Kelly making it clear that basically he put up with nothing is sort of how it is being framed.

He found out and then it was over, Rob Porter was gone, Sarah Sanders just in terms of Rob Porter's dismissal not in the clearances, Sarah Sanders is saying that he left without pressure. So, you know --

SCHULTZ: Yes, but my point is, sure, I'll get to that, but my point is there is a process that folks go through and at some point in time, a temporary -- a final clearance is given. And but prior to that, it is very clear to me that there was a reaction to the photos that were released.

And it seems there was swift action taken the moment those photos were released. And the moment that it became palpable that this was a real issue for the White House, that Rob Porter stay on staff, I think a swift move was made by John Kelly.

KEILAR: OK, so that seems to be what makes sense to you in terms of how this played out. And just to -- that's what makes sense to you. OK, I wanted to get your feel on that. So, you worked with White House Counsel Don McGahn. CNN has learned that he knew about claims over a year ago. Do you think that he should have raised concerns about this?

[11:05:07] SCHULTZ: I don't know what he knew and what he didn't know more than a year ago. I do understand the process. And that White House security -- the White House Security Office would have been interacting with the FBI relative to these background investigations.

And that a temporary is issued as a matter of course when you walk in the place on January 20th because you have to run the government. So, the process played out, I don't know what information was given to Don McGahn or not.

But there were certainly -- I would be very surprised if the -- the White House Security Office would have come to anyone in the White House at some point and said we need to pull this clearance.

KEILAR: Explain to us, because one of the things you're saying the process is playing out, for 30 to 40 people at the White House, top officials who have temporary security clearance, that process by the way you describe it, by the White House describing it, is still playing out.

These are people who do not have permanent security clearances. It is pretty unusual. I know a lot of folks from the Trump's theater say these people come in with different backgrounds. Then a lot of people who would come into the positions they now serve.

I guess, my question is, do you think these folks are actually going to get through the process or do you think as some do that some experts that they're operating on temporary clearances after more than a year because they may never get permanent clearances?

SCHULTZ: I think most of them will get permanent clearances. It is tough to speak to each individual person because you don't know what is in their background. You don't know what the FBI has done, you don't know who they have interviewed, and you don't know any of the issues. But I suspect that the large part of them will eventually get their security clearances to the extent that they're still at the White House when that happens.

KEILAR: At what point do you say, look, you just haven't been able to get a permanent clearance. This isn't going to work out. It is something that is essential to do your job and it is essential for national security?

SCHULTZ: Well, I think that the issue is the FBI is out doing their job. They're going through the process of interviewing neighbors, interviewing spouses, interviewing friends and family, interviewing former co-workers to the extent folks had overseas connections, they're looking into those as well. This is a long process and it is not just happening at the White House level, it is happening at the nominee level as well. So, there is a lot of new people coming into the administration day in and day out that need to go through this process and it is not -- I don't think it is that big a deal at this point that we're still waiting on some security clearances and probably pretty normal.

KEILAR: All right. Jim Schultz, thank you so much for that. We appreciate it.

I want to bring in our panel now, CNN political reporter, Rebecca Berg, and CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston. I do want to ask you guys about that. He said it is pretty normal. As you have reported on this, and talked to people, is this normal?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. Not at all. Our Jim Sciutto has reported on this. And this, the level of security clearances that have not been approved at this stage in the presidency, especially when you're talking about the White House specifically, we're not talking about the broader federal government here, we're talking about just the administration, it is extremely unusual. Jim Sciutto found 30 to 40 interim security clearances in the administration at this stage that does not happen.

KEILAR: And that's your understanding as well, Mark?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And it poses a very big issue because it does slow down the wheels of government moving forward, and specifically when you deal with foreign policy and so many issues on the table right now, whether that be Iraq or Iran or North Korea or what have you. And when you don't have the people in place that can get the information that is needed to make the right decisions, that becomes very problematic.

KEILAR: So, then why do you hear people who are backing Donald Trump or at the White House saying this is the process, this is normal. Why are they saying that?

PRESTON: Well, because they're Donald Trump supporters, right? I mean, and we know that your previous guest, he worked in the Counsel's Office, former aide and a supporter of President Trump. So, they're going to give him that kind of cover at this point and perhaps try to boomerang all the blame back on to Congress.

BERG: It's a bit amazing, though, you consider the level of scrutiny that Trump and his supporters gave to Hillary Clinton when she was going through the FBI investigation into her handling of what a classified information, this is an issue of classified information and the security of that information ultimately.

KEILAR: I do want to talk to you guys about the Rob Porter abuse scandal, the fallout from that at the White House. It has been almost a week now since this story has broke, and it's still continues. How problematic, Rebecca, is it at this point? The White House would like to be past this story line, but there is no clarity on how all of this happened, how this was able to be allowed in the White House. [11:10:05] BERG: Right. Well, it might help the White House, Brianna, that there is a lack of clarity at this point because the facts in this case might be worse than the confusion that they've created around the timeline, around who knew what, when and why Rob Porter was not removed sooner.

KEILAR: Because clearing it up would actually look worse for them than having it muddy.

BERG: It's possible. That's the only explanation that makes sense when you look at why the White House has not given us more details as to the timeline, as to who knew what when and it is, you know, amazing, really, that you're not hearing calls from more Republicans to give us that sort of clarity, to be transparent about this information. Certainly, we're hearing it from Democrats, but not yet from Republicans.

KEILAR: We do find that as reporters that when people don't want to clear things up, it is because it might actually not help their cause. So, you heard Kaitlan report there, Mark, that White House staffers were confused by what the president said because behind the scenes, they're saying, you know, he's called Porter a sick puppy.

And then get him out in front of the cameras and he's essentially defending Porter, touting the fact that he doesn't, you know, he says he didn't do it. Does it put pressure on the president to approach this appropriately, that he has aides behind the scenes going, my goodness, this is not the way you should be handling it?

PRESTON: Well, I don't think he himself feels pressure because I think he himself feels that he has answered it coherently when in fact he hasn't. What the bigger issue is that you have aides in the White House that don't know whether to go left, whether to go right, whether to go forward, whether to go backwards.

They don't exactly know what the president's plan is, and that is not a very functioning White House. It is a White House very much in chaos. It is a pattern we have seen from day one.

KEILAR: It is not unusual for the president to provide some support, some backup to men who were accused of sexual misconduct or physical misconduct. We have a list, we put together a list to some of the ones from Rob Porter to Roy Moore, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Corey Lewandowski, who was accused of basically manhandling a reporter, and then Donald Trump himself who has been accused of sexual assault.

How much is this, Rebecca, do you think President Trump with an eye to even his own accusations, and asserting he is innocent, even though a lot of credible folks who are his accusers, how much of that is bleeding into what he says about someone like Rob Porter?

BERG: I think there is very little doubt, Brianna, that that is a part of this for the president psychologically, that he approaches this more from a personal perspective, his personal experience, than from a political strategic perspective. It is what we saw when he did defend Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, when he saw all of those women coming forward and accusing Roy Moore, he felt a sort of kinship with him, because he had gone through the same thing during the campaign and there is probably almost certainly a level of that in this.

KEILAR: Rebecca Berg, Mark Preston, thank you so much you, guys.

Coming up, Vice President Mike Pence says the United States is ready to talk to North Korea, but then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it is too early to judge and it is up to the North Koreans to engage. So, what is going on here?

Plus, any moment now, President Trump will unveil a big infrastructure plan, but will it ever see the light of day? Stay with us.



KEILAR: Where is the U.S. when it comes to direct talks with North Korea. This morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it will be up to North Korea to decide when it is ready to hold those diplomatic talks.

But that's after the vice president told the "Washington Post" that the Trump administration is ready to talk to Kim Jong-un's regime. While he was in South Korea for the Olympics, the vice president reached an agreement with South Korea's president on terms for engagement with the North Koreans.

Joining me now to talk about these latest developments is Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Sir, thanks for taking the time with us today.


KEILAR: OK. So, you have Pence saying the U.S. is ready to talk and then Tillerson is saying it is up to the North Koreans to engage. Where is the U.S. in respect to engagement with North Korea?

KINZINGER: Well, I don't think those two positions are incongruent. I think on the one hand saying we understand that there's going to be a point in which we need to talk is one thing. And then I think saying, we'll wait until the North Koreans are ready. It is still congruent.

Because what it basically says is we're willing to talk, but it is going to be on our terms. It's not going to be during nuclear testing, not while you're sprinting to the finish line of getting a nuclear weapon because we have done this a hundred times before.

If you remember back in 1994, President Clinton basically was about to approve or at least had on his desk plans to bomb North Korea because of their chasing nuclear weapons. And Jimmy Carter miraculously showed up in Pyongyang and said we have peace in our time and we're still where we are today.

So, I think we're willing to talk. It is obvious that the sanctions are having an impact, but the timing has to be right because it's going to be on our terms (inaudible).

KEILAR: Do you see how it is confusing when you listen to what these two leaders are saying about talks?

KINZINGER: I think if you look at it and say they're saying two different things, yes. Like I said, when I hear it, when I hear somebody say it is going to be when they're ready to talk, and then I hear the vice president say, we're willing to talk, I think they're saying, hey, we're willing to talk to North Korea.

But it is going to be when they're ready in essence when they've made the decision to quit sprinting after nuclear weapons. So maybe it seems incongruent, I don't think it is. I think it is actually pretty much an administration on the same page.

The reality is this, though, I think if we are hopeful that somehow we have a joint South Korean, North Korean Olympic team, and, you know, we'll go into talks and somehow Kim Jong-un has in the last month decided he doesn't want nuclear weapons, let's not get our hopes up because we have been down this road probably 20 times in the past.

[11:20:02] KEILAR: I want to talk to you about government spending because the president today is unveiling a $200 billion infrastructure plan. I wonder is that something that you can support?

KINZINGER: Devil will be in the details. Infrastructure is one of the main jobs of the federal government. It is in the constitution. Constitution says Congress has post offices and post roads, post roads being infrastructure. We have to have a grown-up conversation about how we're funding it.

I think we have to be courageous in that and say, whether it is a gas tax issue or whether it is something with finding a different way to fund infrastructure, but also it sounds like in some of the details some of that spending is actually what was approved in the budget that we did last week.

There is actually billions of dollars for infrastructure already in there and I think some of the military spending can count too. So, look, I love to have an infrastructure plan that works and that's bipartisan, but really the devil is in the details for something like that.

KEILAR: But even that plan that was passed last week is, you know, it adds to government spending, right? That's just -- that's just the truth. And one of your Republican colleagues in the House, Ohio's Jim Jordan, slams the latest budget agreement, says it is not consistent with Republican promises to cut spending. This is what he said specifically about the speaker, Paul Ryan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: Do I think the speaker has problems? Yes, I do. Particularly now as we head into this big immigration debate. Just a few years ago, he was viewed as the fiscal -- the leader of fiscal responsibility in our party, and now he presides over a bill that increases spending $300 billion, a trillion- dollar deficit. What we were so poised to win this fight, of course, he's got problems.


KEILAR: And then you have the tax bill that Republicans are touting as a victory, but it also adds considerably to the deficit over ten years. So, when you look at all of that spending, and when it comes to the infrastructure bill, it seems really unclear, although, we're hoping to get more details soon about what is to pay for it, that's a lot of money. Do you worry your party is giving up on being the party of fiscal responsibility?

KINZINGER: Yes, of course it is a worry. And, look, Jim Jordan never misses an opportunity to slam somebody in his own party. In fact, I see him do that more often than he does anybody else. So, Jim Jordan's comment don't surprise me.

It is interesting because he always talks about how he's a supporter of military spending, but he's been supporting the sequester and frankly, a lot of folks in that freedom caucus actually say they told me privately that they want military spending to be less.

What we did in this budget is we fixed the military because there was this blunt hammer that came in 2011 called sequester, which was intended to never occur. It was supposed to get us to make grown-up decisions, and it was supposed to be a thing that never happened.

It happened, and in the process, it devastated our military. Last week, this was our chance to basically pay for our sins of what we have done to the military and bring the military where it needs to be. The Democrats demanded a massive increase in domestic spending, even though they couldn't articulate why.

But they have to have -- we have to have 60 votes in the Senate, so they had a seat at the table and they got it.

KEILAR: But the tax cuts -- the tax cuts, the spending, this proposed infrastructure, I asked because when you look back here in recent decades, Republicans, you know, throughout the 80s, about being -- you know there was a messaging, this narrative that kind of came out until you saw George W. Bush.

It was about being fiscally responsible, then there was a lot of spending and Republicans paid dearly politically for it. I just wonder how much that's on your mind considering the conversation that we're having today, all of this being out into deficit spending, it is so much different than discussions of entitlement reform and coming to a grand fiscal bargain with President Obama. It is very different thing. KINZINGER: It is different. Look, George W. Bush's increase was because of 9/11 and also the addition of Medicare Part D, which a lot of people will say it successful. In terms of us, look, 25 percent --

KEILAR: In tax cuts.

KINZINGER: -- sure, 25 percent of the federal government spending is what we have any control over, 75 percent is auto pilot spending. You have 10,000 baby boomers retiring in a day. If you can make an adjustment to entitlements for guys my age, I'm 39.

And if you tell me that maybe there is a delay in retirement or something, a means testing for me when I get to that age, but it saves it for current seniors and puts it on the right fiscal trajectory in 10 to 20 years, I would be a yes on that.

KEILAR: But no one is talking about that, Congressman, you know that, that's not even -- that's not on the agenda at all. I hear what you're saying. We've heard it in recent years, but it is like, that disappeared from the conversation.

KINZINGER: Well, I think it needs to come back. The problem is when we talk about it, you'll have some on the other side that say you're cutting taxes and spending more on the military so that you have to cut social security for seniors.

Of course, that's not the case and the problem is that both sides play corrosive politics, but especially the left plays corrosive politics when we talk about reforming entitlements, saving it for current seniors.

So, if we can have these grown-up discussions, the tax cuts were necessary to get the economy rolling again. It is just like if a business finds itself stagnated, it will go, it will spend money to build an additional line or to hire more people to get --

[11:25:10] KEILAR: But the economy isn't stagnated.

KINZINGER: Well, it is especially not now, not since President Trump has taken over, not since the promise of tax cuts. A lot of this has been gone up -- has gone up over last year was over this expectation of tax cuts happening and tax reform.

And there is no doubt that putting us on a trajectory on the international tax code to compete with every other country, talk to any of your friends in any other country in the world and they'll say that corporate tax reform specifically really made us more competitive with their companies.

KEILAR: All right, Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thank you so much for being with us.

Coming up, as we mentioned, President Trump will unveil this massive infrastructure plan any moment now. So, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KEILAR: The fate of DREAMers is taking center stage on Capitol Hill. Senators are set to begin a rare open-ended debate on immigration. A group of Republican senators has released a bill.