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White House Tries to Defend Handling of Rob Porter, But Can't Get Story Straight. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET



QUESTION: I want to get back to the timeline, Sarah.

So, The Intercept reporter (inaudible) tweeted out photos of Colby Holderness' black eye at 1:53 a.m. on Wednesday, and The Daily Mail published them at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. And the White House (inaudible) statement at 1:45 on Wednesday afternoon, 12 hours after all of these photos were already published and out.

Why was the White House still saying that Porter was a man of integrity and honor after these photos had circulated?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The comments that were made by members of the White House were based on our personal experience, and we could only speak to the interaction that we had personally had.

QUESTION: Why are high-level aides allowed to work with classified information without permanent security clearance?

SANDERS: Once again, that's a question that the FBI and other intelligence communities, they make that determination. That's not something decided by the White House. It's the same way that it has been...

QUESTION: (Inaudible) have someone (inaudible)....


SANDERS: I'm sorry. I missed the first part of your question.

QUESTION: Can you guarantee that you are protecting classified information when you have someone like Rob Porter, who didn't have a permanent security clearance...


SANDERS: I think we're doing and taking every step we can to protect classified information. I mean, frankly, if you guys have such concern with classified information, there's plenty of it that's leaked out of the Hill, that's leaked out of other communities, well beyond the White House walls. If you guys have real concerns about leaking out classified information, look around this room. You guys are the ones that publish classified information and put national security at risk. That doesn't come from this White House.

QUESTION: Is this White House (inaudible)?


SANDERS: We take every precaution possible to protect classified information, and certainly to protect national security. It's the president's number-one priority, is protecting the citizens of this country. It's why we spend every single day doing everything we can to do that.

And I think if anyone is publishing or putting out publicly classified information, it's members of the press, not the White House.


QUESTION: At the end of last week, the White House said there were things that everyone could have done a better job handling this situation. Have you identified anything specific, other than -- I know you've mentioned law enforcement agencies and the FBI and their process. What about your processes? Has the White House identified anything could have been done better in this situation to prevent something like this from happening?

SANDERS: I think we're looking at that internally, and agree that there are things we could have done better, and we're going to continue to look at the process and the role we all played and how we can do it better. But not just in this; I think every day we come to work and we hope to do a better job than we did the day before. And we're going to keep doing that every morning we come to work. We're going to do our best to make this day better than the last, and make this country better than the day it was before. That's our goal, and that's what we're going to do in every situation.

As we recognized last week, there were some things we could have done better. And we're certainly going to look at every single instance and every single thing we do, how we can always do it a little bit better than we did the day before.


QUESTION: Sarah, (inaudible), when the initial story came out, the White House praises Rob Porter. Wednesday morning, photos comes out. White House (inaudible) statement. Wednesday afternoon, the White House continues to praise Rob Porter. Chief of Staff John Kelly said he acted 40 minutes within knowing the allegations. Can you explain that?

SANDERS: As I said, and I'm going to repeat what I said earlier, that we've learned of this situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening. And within 24 hours his resignation had been accepted and announced. We announced a transition was going to happen, and within hours it did. And in terms of timeline, I don't have anything else to add.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), can you explain that? SANDERS: I can tell that you a conversation took place within 40 minutes. And beyond that, I really don't have anything else to add.

QUESTION: We reported, and others have too, that Don McGahn over, you know, a period of months, was told repeatedly by the ex-girlfriend, by the FBI, by you know, others in the White House about these accusations, and didn't do anything. Can you explain why no actions were taken by Don McGahn, the chief White House (inaudible)?

SANDERS: Those allegations that have been reported are not accurate.


QUESTION: Sarah, you keep saying the president says we takes domestic violence very seriously. Moving forward, how seriously will he take it? What will he do to raise awareness about it, (inaudible) against it, particularly as, again, I asked this last week with Raj, as this administration ended the Violence Against Women Office, as well as closing down the Women and Girls Office. What will be new and different as it relates to combating this?

SANDERS: I believe there is an individual that is in the nomination process to run an office specific to domestic violence. And when we have that process completed, we'll make personnel announcement, but we are in process of doing that.

QUESTION: OK, I have another question, (inaudible) on infrastructure. Infrastructure is about jobs, job creation, and you're talking about rural America. When you're talking about these jobs, are there going to be guidelines as to who can and who won't be hired?

SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of anything to that nature.

QUESTION: A lot of the infrastructure projects during the Obama years, when Hilda Solis was labor secretary, a lot of those jobs went to Hispanics, and...

SANDERS: A lot of those jobs were never completed or started. They were announced, but nothing ever happened on them. We're expecting a very different result to actually announcing complete projects, versus just announcing them doing nothing.


QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah. I just wanted to get you to clarify something. I think you've answered this, but I wanted to have you clarify, if you could. It's about the White House Counsel Don McGahn. Are you saying that the White House counsel never learned until last Tuesday that there was any allegation of any sort that was ever leveled against Rob Porter?

SANDERS: Again, I'm not going into the specific details of how the process works but I can say that we learned of the extent of this situation...

QUESTION: Who is "we?" Because I want to get to Don McGahn specifically.

SANDERS: The White House generally.

QUESTION: OK, to Don McGahn specifically, though, had he learned at any time before last Tuesday, when the story was broken by The Daily Mail, that there was any allegation of any sort leveled by any person against Rob Porter?

SANDERS: Again, I can't get into the specifics. I can tell you that we were -- the process for the background was ongoing, and the White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check. So I can't go any further than what we've already said on that (inaudible).


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah. Two brief questions as a follow-up to the last two questions.

What is don McGahn's status as counsel right now?

SANDERS: I think the same as it was two weeks ago, two months ago, a year ago -- he's the head of the White House counsel, and I have no indication to see differently.

QUESTION: All right, and the other question is, Senator Corker said last night he was reconsidering, and possibly will reverse his decision not to seek re-election. Already a Republican primary is in process in the state. What's the president's view? Should Senator Corker run again? Would he try persuade him to, or just let him -- urge him to go back home to Tennessee?

SANDERS: We haven't had that conversation about Senator Corker's plans. But as always, I can't weigh in on the specifics of the potential of a race, but I would have to talk to the president before making a comment.

I'll take one last question -- Frank?

QUESTION: Yes, last year the administration said that the national debt is a crisis, not just for the nation, but for every citizen. Does the president still believe it is a crisis? And if it is a crisis...

SANDERS: Sorry, I missed the first part -- a national what?

QUESTION: The national debt. And if it -- if the national debt is a crisis, why hit the gas pedal instead of the brake when it comes to spending?

SANDERS: Look, the president, one of the biggest and top priorities of the president's first year in office was to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which we think will have a big impact on that moving forward. It's been a major focus on the economy. And the budget today that provides funding for the president's priorities, including national security. The president also knows that one of the most important jobs he has is protecting this country. Therefore, the need for rebuilding our military that had been ignored for so long. Infrastructure, focusing on defeating the opioids crisis and a border wall.

At the same time, the budget reduces the deficit by over $3 trillion. And this budget not only funds the president's priorities, but puts the country on a path to restoring fiscal discipline. I encourage you to stick around and talk to Director Mulvaney who'd be happy to go into more detail on the budget and other things regarding that here in the next bit.

Thanks so much, guys.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You were listening to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders just there defending or attempting to defend the administration's handling of the domestic abuse allegations against now former top aide Rob Porter.

Sarah Sanders insisting there that President Trump takes domestic violence very seriously and thinks that all allegations need to be thoroughly investigated. Sanders saying that the president supports the victims.

It seems a contradiction to President Trump's remarks on Friday in which he lamented that Porter was leaving. He said it was sad for him, tough for him. He wished him well, avoided any mention of the three women who had accused Porter of domestic abuse, two of them making the accusations to the press directly on the record and also to the FBI.

My political panel is here with me.

So, first of all, let's just remind people where we were Wednesday, when the allegation broke, first in "The Daily Mail" and then in The Intercept.

Two ex-wives on the record alleging domestic abuse. One of them with the photograph of a black eye. Another one with a police report. John Kelly had a statement in which he praised the integrity and honor of Rob Porter.


And let me play that.

"Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor. And I can't say enough good things about him. I am proud to serve alongside him."

Kaitlan, remind us what Sarah Sanders said to the press when these allegations first surfaced Tuesday night and Wednesday.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So, the first "Daily Mail" was Tuesday night.

The photos of the black eye were tweeted about 2:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. A second "Daily Mail" story came out Wednesday morning, and this was about roughly 2:00 p.m. at the briefing that day. Sarah Sanders, they had issued a statement where Sarah Sanders said --

quote -- "I worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year, and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character. Those of us who have the privilege of knowing him are better people because of it."

That's after two stories come out with two ex-wives alleging domestic violence and photos of their black eye. And Sarah Sanders there, the White House is still doing a remarkably bad job of explaining the timeline of who knew what and when about these allegations.

And she's saying John Kelly had a conversation with Rob Porter within 40 minutes of finding out about the extent of the allegations. That does not match our reporting, which says that John Kelly knew about these months ago.

TAPPER: It also doesn't match just the timeline that we all saw play out in real time Tuesday night and Wednesday.

In fact, I want to play sound from today, Sara Sidner a sounding quite different than she sounded last Wednesday talking about basically how the White House had handled this consistently with an eye toward the victims the entire time. It is obviously not true, but let's play that sound.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: We learned of the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening, and within 24 hours, his resignation had been accepted and announced.

We announced a transition was going to happen and within hours. It did. The president and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly.

Above all, the president supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process. We have addressed this situation extensively and we have nothing more to add at this time on that topic.


TAPPER: So, obviously, this notion that above the president supports victims of domestic violence was not in play on Wednesday or on Thursday or on Friday.

And yet now they're attempting to convince the American people that they learned this and then Porter was gone.

Well, they keep repeating this, that we take domestic violence seriously.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: There was also a memo that went out internally in the White House where General Kelly was saying this. They're saying the words, but the actions aren't really matching up with the words.

And, as you said, all the reporting shows that they knew about this much earlier. But let's just take them at face value that they just found out about it and follow the timeline that Kaitlan just laid out.

TAPPER: Tuesday night.

POWERS: Still, if they just found out about it, they still weren't reacting appropriately.

Even the idea that you need the picture, when you have two ex-wives on record saying this, and they could have merely maybe done a little digging on their own. Maybe talked to the FBI, for example, and they could have found out a lot more about it.

Even with that knowledge, that was enough. Let's just take again face value. They don't think that is enough. We need a picture of a bruise. Now you have the bruise. They're still saying it. Even if you look at John Kelly's second statement, he's still basically saying I stand by what I said earlier.

Then you have the president going on record, on camera, not saying a word about the women and treating Porter almost like a victim. So it is just not adding up with reality.

TAPPER: It sounded like last Wednesday they were nominating him for sainthood. Forget that they were talking about a domestic abuser. A man of true integrity and honor. We're all better for having worked for him.

And now they're talking about as if they're activists on behalf of domestic violence victims.


It is totally within the realm of possibility that someone like this can trick a bunch people for a long time in a professional setting, right?

TAPPER: It happens a lot. Yes.

CARPENTER: Pretty clearly a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation.

But the problem is, once you know Mr. Hyde is there, you don't go on praising Mr. Jekyll as one of the greatest people you have ever met, Dr. Jekyll. Just you have to act once you know that information. It is pretty clear they knew it a long time ago. And none of this is matching up.


COLLINS: And she just said right there that we found out Tuesday night.

OK, so then why on Wednesday at 2:00 at the briefing are they saying, we not only didn't ask him to resign, he chose to resign and he's going to stay on to ensure a smooth transition? You're going to let someone who battered their two ex-wives stay on for a few days and work at the White House and be around classified information? That doesn't make any sense.

TAPPER: And in terms of classified information, this was interesting, because it was pointed out in the briefing -- and we've all talked about it on TV -- somebody at the position of staff secretary, who is in charge of getting information in front of President Trump, needs to have a high security clearance.

[16:15:04] Having these allegations out there is, obviously, susceptible to blackmail. Forget bad press that the White House has now, is susceptible to blackmail. When Sarah Sanders was asked about this, her response was, A, to blame the FBI for a faulty process and, B, to blame the press, the media for reporting on other secrets.

POWERS: Right. She can't really have it both ways. It can't be terrible when the media leaks things. And you have to remember earlier in the administration, they were literally obsessed with that. It's all they ever talked about, and then at the same time, be completely indifferent to the fact that somebody at the very highest levels of government could be blackmailed and is having access to all this information.

You can't have it both ways, Sarah. I'm sorry.

TAPPER: Let's go -- I want to go to Jeff Zeleny right now on the subject of security clearances, because Sarah Sanders was asked specifically about this, and Jeff Zeleny, she seemed to provide very little in terms of answers about what anyone in the White House knew and when -- whether White House counsel Don McGahn or Chief of Staff John Kelly.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No question, Jake. I mean, we're back to sort of square one on this whole idea of interim security clearances. Last week, the White House says it was going to release a little bit more information to make it more understood about the security clearances. But the central person, never mind Rob Porter, is Jared Kushner. He and up to 30 or 40 other White House officials or political appointees still do not have their permanent security clearances.

Now, this is a central issue this White House has not talked about. And the entire Rob Porter situation shine a light on all of this. So, the White House has not answered our questions about this and in this briefing, they would not answer the questions of why those security clearances still aren't granted. Yes, it takes some time here, but the question is, why is it taking so long on so many people, specifically Jared Kushner and others who do have access to classified information.

Now, one person at the center of all this is Don McGahn. He is the White House counsel, of course, who receives this information from the FBI. Important to point out as we learned last week, the FBI does not make recommendations. They simply provide information. It's up to the White House to make a decision.

So, what did Don McGahn know about this? Sarah Sanders in that briefing would not answer the questions from Josh Dawsey of "The Washington Post" about the chief counsel's role in this.

So, Jake, I'm not sure this briefing actually provided any more information or did anything to move beyond all of this. You had the sense last week that there was more of a time for just answering every question out there. But it seemed to me to be more retrenching today. So, I still there is as many questions right now than there were earlier.

The White House again is not providing the answers. The security clearance is something that goes well beyond Rob Porter. That's an active situation for at least 30 White House officials and political appointee maybe more that has real consequences -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks.

Mary Katharine, the White House seems to think they can keep not answering questions and not providing any sort of timeline on this and that the questions are going to go away.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, and I don't think they will. This is like such a clear big mistake. And it's not only a mistake by the people in sort of the normal Trump orbit, but McGahn and Kelly are part of this.

But I wonder, too, if the deeper problem of a bunch of people not having security clearances and then having not a normally staffed White House led to some of McGahn and Kelly who would have normally acted on this, keeping themselves plausibly perhaps ignorant because they had a person who was competent at his job in that position, which is not me excusing at all. I'm just trying to think why this would have happened, but that part may be part of this as well.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: I think they should highlight what they said about the president there because he was -- Sarah Sanders was asked directly if he believes Rob Porter's ex-wives. And she wouldn't directly answer with a yes or a no question, just said that he supports victims of domestic abuse but also believes in due process. And when asked why the president hasn't, you know, issued this response that is sympathetic towards the women at all and instead has been dismissive of these allegations and defensive of Rob Porter, Sarah Sanders said the president literally dictated the statement that she read at the beginning of the briefing.

But I should note, the Oval Office is roughly 30 feet away from the press briefing room. So, if the president really believes in this sentiment, he could have walked out there himself and said as much. He could have tweeted it. He could have said it earlier today when he was in a room full of cameras. But we have not heard the president be publicly critical of Rob Porter yet.

TAPPER: Quite the contrary, right? On Friday, he beckoned the cameras into the room so he could make that statement praising Rob Porter.

And the other thing I want to say is the question wasn't just about his public statement in favor of Rob Porter. It was about his history of statements praising men accused of horrific behavior towards women, Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton back before he was running against his wife, Roy Moore, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, there are too many to count but you get the point. Steve Wynn.

I mean, there is -- there's a record here of supporting men who behave abhorrently allegedly towards women.

[16:20:03] HAM: It's also quite easy to believe in due process and also vet allegations and deal with them on a case by case basis, and see that this is photographic evidence, contemporary evidence. We've got many people saying the same M.O. and they were talking to the FBI for these clearances. They weren't talking to just friends which is corroborating as well.

POWERS: Well, the other thing is, who is denying due process? The White House. I mean, it's just a complaint, right? I mean, if they believe that he didn't get his due process, then they have only themselves to blame.

The reality is there are two women on the record that the FBI believed, who are trained to determine whether or not people are telling truth. You have a third person, an ex-girlfriend, who had reached out to these women along before there was a Trump White House. Long before Rob Porter had this job.

So, it involves a lot of conspiracy theory like craziness to even get to the point that this is somehow these women have gotten together to make up these stories.

TAPPER: Yes, and not to put a fine a point to it also, but, Kirsten, ex-wives are not natural allies. I mean, you know, the second wife is more likely to be suspicious of the first wife. But they are now, they have this similar story.

And this other -- this girlfriend, whose name we don't know, or we haven't published, rather, apparently reportedly reached out the Don McGahn at the White House because she was concerned about Hope Hicks, the White House communications director who is reportedly romantically involved with Rob Porter to this day.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. And we also saw the White House deny there that Don McGahn knew a year ago about these allegations which is I believe "The Washington Post" has reported. But we know for a fact that senior administration officials knew in detail about these allegations, not just the rough edges, they knew in detail about these allegations made against Rob Porter as early as last fall, including the chief of staff, John Kelly. And yet they did nothing.

And the White House has had five days to get their story straight on a consistent explanation for who knew what and when and why this has not taking care of sooner and we are not seeing them properly addressed that. Instead, they're deflecting. They're creating these timelines that don't match up and we're continuing to see from them six days after he resigned.

HAM: And, by the way, I know this is the smallest defense of the list here, but Hope Hicks who is the communications director should have made clear from the very beginning that she would not be involved in the response, communications wise, to this particular case, because she has a conflict of interest there.

TAPPER: Do you think that her judgment was clouded and because the president trusts her so much, that might have created everything we're witnessing here? I mean, obviously, the buck stops with the president but --

HAM: Right. I mean, it is very hard to understand the emotional ins and outs of this White House. But obviously, she's very close to them and it just doesn't -- even if her judgment were not clouded, you just say I'm stepping away from this for this very obvious reason.

TAPPER: I want to play SOT four. Today, Sarah Sanders was asked what could have been done better. Raj Shah, the deputy press secretary said that last week. There was reporting that President Trump didn't like it when he said it but Sarah Sanders seemed to report it. Let's play that sound.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think we're looking at that internally and agree that there are things we could have done better. And we're going to continue to look at the process and the role we all played and how we can do it better. But not just in this. I think every day we come to work and we hope to do a better job than we did the day before, and we're going to keep doing that every single morning we come to work.


TAPPER: Those words don't mean a lot if they're not trying improve the process here in terms of what the public understands, because ultimately, they work for the public, the American people about what they knew about this alleged domestic abuser, what the issue was with his security clearance and why they reacted the way they did.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. We did not see any of that. They're saying they wish they had done a better job. The same thing that Raj Shah said last week, which is a statement that actually got a lot of praise. It was something you don't often hear out of the White House is a semi-apology almost for something we could have done something better. That's not something you often hear. We actually reported that the president was not pleased with that statement that came out of the press briefing last week when he said that we could have done a better job.

But you're right. Where are the tangible results of that? Because the White House isn't giving us a clear cut explanation of what really happened last week and what was the actual timeline.

TAPPER: And one of the women, one of the ex-wives, Ms. Willoughby, she wrote an article for "TIME" magazine in which she seemed to suggest -- well, let me just read from it.

Quote: My friend turned to me and said, this is after Friday's statement, the president of the United States just called you a liar. Yes, she writes, Ms. Willoughby, and so he did. If the most powerful people in the nation do not believe my story of abuse in the face of overwhelming evidence, then what hope do others have of being heard?

And this is really one of the worst and most nefarious things about this is, what kind of message does this send to women, to men of America about how seriously the White House takes this?

HAM: Well, it sends the opposite message of what they're saying, obviously, which is the problem here. And, by the way, this is -- he has a real knack also for animating the people that he's like going to battle with.

[16:25:03] The women in this case might not have been so vociferous had he not said -- sort of implied that they were lying. You get people's backs up and they will make clear that they're not going to be victimized again.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around.

With all the chaos in and around the White House, can Democrats capitalize on the moment? We'll see. One leading voice of the Democratic Party will join me with how that might work, next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: We're back with breaking news on our politics.

The White House defending today President Trump's response to the domestic abuse allegations against now former staff secretary Rob Porter, insisting that President Trump takes domestic violence allegations very seriously.

Joining me now is former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Governor, thanks for being here.

I want to get your response. Here is Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responding to a question about why the president didn't put out a statement about victims of domestic violence last week.


SANDERS: I spoke with the president and those are directly his words that he gave me.