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White House Standing By Kelly Amid Abuse Scandal; Obama's Official Portraits For Smithsonian Unveiled; McConnell Jokes With Schumer At Joint Event. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Today's Washington parlor game, you decide this question, real or not real. The president is committed to moving on from his chief of staff, disgusted with John Kelly's decision to keep an aide in a critical west wing position for months after Kelly found out that Rob Porter's ex-wives said he physically abused them. President Trump now, calling his sounding boards of floating names for those who could take over. That encourages chatter like this.


CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: I think the president has got to make that call. I think from the end, we've got to hear from John Kelly as to what he knew. And we haven't heard that directly from him yet. And I think the president needs to hear that before he can make an evaluation of competency.


KING: Version two, real or not real. White House Chief Of Staff John Kelly isn't going anywhere. And we should pay attention to this Sunday morning show of force.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: I spoke to the president last night. I told him, I'd be with you today. And he said, please tell Jake that I have full faith in Chief of Staff John Kelly and that I'm not actively searching for replacements. He said, I saw that all over the news today. I have faith in him.

[12:35:05] MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: John Kelly has offered his resignation. John Kelly is doing an outstanding job.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: Well, I hear I'm being considered in the media at least for replacing the chief of staff, and you'd think that maybe someone would have mentioned it to me. No one has talked to me at all, not a single time.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins us live from the White House Briefing Room. Jeff, real or not real, is the president going to keep his chief of staff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, as we sit here today, Monday at this moment, it is real. The president is going to keep his chief of staff. Now, that is an important question we'll be asking all week long here.

Firings usually don't happen at this White House on a Monday. So we'll check it on Friday. But the reality here is the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, was standing in the room there with the president and the other leaders talking about infrastructure.

He is on the job here. And we're told he does have the president's support. That does not mean, of course, he does not also have the president's ire. We have seen for months the president essentially browbeat and bully other members of his staff, other members of his cabinet. Jeff Sessions are first among them, the attorney general, and criticized them.

But I am told what is really going on here, it's giving an opening for anyone who is sort of not thrilled with John Kelly or felt he was too controlling, it is giving them an opening to voice some complaint here.

The question is, will the president listen to any of that? It's an open question at this point because we know the president is restless often. But at this moment, at this point, as we start this week, it appears that John Kelly is still in his position and that is not going to change at the moment.

But again, John, sometimes things change around here fairly quickly, so we'll see if he gets through this week. John?

KING: Words of caution from an experienced Trump White House hand at this moment. Jeff Zeleny, thanks. Appreciate the reporting.

This is a musing to a degree in the sense that we've watched the Trump White House go through this from day one, the president advance to his outside advisers saying, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that and sends his team out and say something very different.

The issue at core of this though is anything but amusing. It is a question of who knew, what, when, and how the White House could fundamentally mismanage the situation where you had somebody with deep access to the Oval Office and one of the most sensitive jobs in United States government who has been accused incredibly by two ex-wives of violent physical abuse.

And this was brought to their attention as much as a year ago, a year ago. So there is hopefully a soul searching going on at the White House about how this happened and whether they protected this aide even after they knew. I want to bring this into the conversation. I'm part of -- I'm reluctant to do so. But the president watches certain T.V. programs as he's trying to figure out what to do. Here's some advice from Judge Jeanine.


JEANINE PIRRO, FOX NEWS HOST: For everyone who is looking for someone to blame, chill out. You want to stop a four-star general who is running the White House, who believes in chain of command? Who makes a decision within 40 minutes because you hate Donald Trump? Find another scapegoat. You might want to look at the last president.


KING: On that last point, nice try. They blame Obama for the rain. They blame Obama for traffic. There's a lot of things we could talk about President Obama. But that Rob Porter was kept on in the White House for more than a year after it came attention to the White House Counsel that he had been accused of domestic abuse, that's a Donald Trump problem, not a Barack Obama problem, number one.

But who is she talking to? Who are these insiders in the White House who see this moment to maybe force John Kelly out?

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT BLOOMBERG: She's talking to Donald Trump. That's the only person she's talking to.

Look, there is soul searching going on inside the White House and they should be concerned about the decision making that led up to this. But when you see what President Trump himself tweeted over the weekend about how accusations can ruin a person's life, about what he said a couple days ago about wishing Rob Porter well.

President Trump's beef with John Kelly stretches back several months and has nothing to do with Rob Porter. It is about whether the chief of staff has too greatly tightened control around who comes and goes and sees him talk to the president whether John Kelly has too much unilateral or control over decision making, whether the president feels hemmed in or challenged by him which many of the president's friends have been whispering inside his ears from inside the building and from inside the building in recent months.

And ultimately, I think that is more likely to the factor in General Kelly's longevity. But against that, the president has to consider it is a midterm year, he has several balls in the air right now in terms of policy priorities that he wants to move forward on, and changing chiefs of staff, that would be an incredibly disruptive move.

General Kelly coming from the military chain of command structure, I think it's highly unlikely to offer himself up to go unless the president asks for it. And that's where we are now on this Monday.

KING: You mentioned, it's a midterm election year. And who is this -- whose job is it to tell the president when you make public statements you should show some empathy, some concern for the women here? Even if you want to wish Rob Porter well because he served you well, why won't you -- the president's tweets and the president's public statements have done no such thing. They have defended the man who was accused here again incredibly by two ex-wives. [12:40:03] To which point, one of the ex-wives Jenny Willoughby wrote this in "Time", "There it is again. The words mere allegation and falsely accused meant to imply that I am a liar. That Colbie Holderness" the other ex-wife "is a liar. That the work Rob was doing in the White House was of higher value than our mental, emotional or physical well-being. That his professional contributions are worth more than the truth. That abuse is something to be questioned and doubted." Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, there's a slew of men that Donald Trump has believed over women. This is a pattern. This is the president.



RAJU: And Roy Moore as well.

KING: Himself.

RAJU: I mean, yes, and I think a lot of people would be very sympathetic to what she's writing there. And that's what I think is, you know, Trump saying this is just a mere allegation is far more damaging in a lot of ways in the way General Kelly dealt with the situation. While Kelly, obviously he knew about something that he didn't tell the president about, and his comments have been conflicting with other accounts.

Apparently, the time as well is a little squishy. Apparently, he told some White House staffers to give a different accounting of what exactly happened here. But this is a president of the United States who needs to lead by example. And he's not doing that. He's saying this is an allegation, downplaying it, not showing any sympathy for these people. And that's really what the ultimate problem is with this scandal and why is probably that going to away any time soon.

KING: And to the point of who knew what when and then what do they do when they have that information? We do know that Rob Porter himself told the Don McGahn, the White House counsel, a year ago there could be a problem with my background check.

We do know the FBI came back and they had the interview of the two ex- wives, the FBI saw the photos, Don McGahn's people were sending out or that he did not see the photos. But he did get a report of saying this was real. Here's the budget director Mick Mulvaney saying, we handled this as well as we could.


MULVANEY: And that's what the president did up until the time that it became obvious, when the photographs came out and that person was not being honest with the president and that person after that happened, we dismissed that person immediately.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: I just have a hard time with this because they have not been able to give us a full -- and they contradict each other sometimes in terms of the timeline. They had an FBI report that said he should not get a security clearance because he was credibly accused of abuse not once, but twice, months ago. Whether they actually -- is it so the photographs became public then they have to fire him, is that what they're relying on as opposed to we knew about this privately. But it was OK, because it was private and nobody knew about it?

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I mean that's the problem with these conflicting timelines, is we don't know as a public. And it's hard even for reporters covering the White House to figure out what exactly happened because we started the segment talking about the different explanations for where John Kelly is currently.

The truth is, is that they're probably both true, because people are saying these things based on what they believe. That's been a problem, a consistent problem, for the last year of trying to cover the White House and understand what this White House is thinking is. People have different stories. And they need to get their stories straight. So, we have a better way of grappling with what they knew, when they knew it.

I do think the question of Don McGahn, the White House counsel, what he knew has not been explored enough. John Kelly, obviously the chief of staff at the top of this is a target. And somebody we want to know what he knew as well. But Don McGahn knowing this a year ago, does raise a lot of questions about why nothing was looked into further if they're getting this report through the FBI.

TALEV: How did they react, what happened next?

KING: Right. So they just think. And forgive me, I'll close with this. And also, the White House put out a paper statement last week saying domestic abuse is a horrible thing. It would be refreshing if in any of his public words or public tweets, the president of the United States would say something like that. That would be refreshing.

Up next, Barack and Michelle Obama back in the spotlight today and immortalized on campus. But before we go to break, take a listen to what President Trump said a few minutes ago about trade deals, including the country where his vice president just visited, South Korea.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We lose vast amounts of money with China and Japan and South Korea and so many other countries. And they understand where I'm coming from. I've talked to all of them and they understand it. It's a little tough for them because they've gotten away with murder for 25 years. But we're going to be changing policy.

[12:44:30] And, you know, we have an incredible country. But we can't let that happen. And it's really affecting our workers, it's affecting everything. So that's going to be a very big part of what's happening over the next month.



KING: Time to check some other stories on our political radar today. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the ball is now in North Korea's court, that on the question of when it comes to possible talks over its nuclear program.

Tillerson's comments comes after Vice President Pence told "The Washington Post", the United States would be willing to talk to North Korea under certain circumstances. Quote, if you want to talk, we'll talk, the vice president said, on his way back from the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

It appears the EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has some expensive travel habits. Citing a government watchdog, "The Washington Post" says, Pruitt uses taxpayer money on expensive travel much more often than his predecessors.

The "Post" says, Pruitt took, you see it here, a first class flight from New York to Rome, it cost more than $7,000 as well as some other pricey trips between D.C. and New York and between Atlanta and Birmingham, that's about 2.5 hour drive or you can spend $4,400 of taxpayer money. But Pruitt spokesman says all of his travel was approved by the Ethics Office.

Barack and Michelle Obama back in the spotlight today for the unveiling of their official portraits for the Smithsonian Museum National Portrait Gallery. The former first lady chose Baltimore- based artist Amy Sherald, the former president pick Kehinde Wiley, a painter who trained at Yale University and one who Mr. Obama said, had left to work with.


[12:50:04] BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let's face it. Kehinde relative to Amy was working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming. Not as fly. Michelle always used to joke. I am not somebody who is a great subject. I don't like posing. I get impatient. I look at my watch. I think this must be done. One of those pictures must have worked, why is this taking so long?


KING: Interesting event. Any art experts at the table?

WARREN: I can relate. I don't like to sit for portraits.

KING: You don't like to sit for portraits.

RAJU: The only thing I could think of when I saw Barack Obama's portrait was the Wrigley Field ivy is being by his long Cubs fan. That's what I thought about when I saw it. He claimed to be a White Sox fan. I wonder how beat that something similar. But it reminds me of Wrigley in June and July.

KING: How politics is in local field, isn't it?

RAJU: Exactly. No better place to be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think what's important is that they like them. At the end of the day, as long as like, your portrait and the view, I have no experience in this, as long as you like it, great.

KING: There you go. That is important. That is important. That's why I'll never have a portrait taken, thank you very much.

This just in CNN from the U.S. official, President Trump spoke today with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to express condolences for the weekend plane crash just outside Moscow. We'll be right back.



[12:55:27] SEN. MITCH MACCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: We've had a lot of interesting speakers here over the years. In my view, none more interesting than our guest this morning.


KING: That was a crowd down in Kentucky unsure if they should laugh at that line from the Republican leader, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He and Democrat Leader Chuck Schumer sharing a stage at the University of Louisville McConnell Center. It's rare to see the two leaders together outside of Washington, and there's been a lot of talk this year in Washington that their relationship is anything but chummy or respectful. Not true, both insisted today as they toke the chance to poke fun at each other.


MCCONNELL: After graduating from Harvard Law School, Chuck was elected to the New York State Assembly at the age of 23. In his memoir, Chuck remembered his parents actually didn't want him to run. They thought the life of a corporate lawyer would be respectable and more comfortable. Well, Chuck, I've got to say in my life would have been a lot easier if you had only listened to your parents.


KING: A little fun, a little levity, and not a bad thing. I know partisans out there will be gasping, how can they be in the same room together. You can't get anything done how much you have respect. A good gesture?

TALEV: Yes. RAJU: Certainly. And look, they just cut that big budget deal last week so they're coming off some bipartisan accolades there. But this is a relationship that has been fought with tension for years. In 2008, Chuck Schumer as DSEC cut an ad going after Mitch McConnell on TARP and McConnell was very upset about that ad. Thought that it actually broke their pledge not to attack each other over the Wall Street bailout. This is something McConnell remembered for years and years, and years.

After that they really didn't talk a whole lot, and Chuck Schumer voted against Mitch McConnell's wife to be Department of Transportation secretary last year. McConnell undoubtedly remembers that. So a lot of episodes from their past that are not so --

KING: McConnell remembers --

RAJU: -- bipartisan.

KING: McConnell remembers everything. Now there's a lot of fun here, but Chuck Schumer committed a capital offense in the state of Kentucky bringing undocumented bourbon across the border.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: Here's another thing you might not realize we have in common, bourbon. It turns out that Brooklyn where I was born, raised and still proudly live, produces some of the best bourbon in the world. I know that's a contentious thing to say in these parts. And as a thank you for his invitation, I'd like to give this bottle of Widow Jane bourbon to Mitch McConnell. There's not a such thing as Brooklyn bourbon.


KING: The bourbon trail is one of Kentucky's great tourist attractions that it is worth the drive. Ladies and gentlemen, fun but bad idea.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That could be an attack ad in Kentucky.

WARREN: Exactly. All I can say is that I imagine on Mitch McConnell, for whatever differences he has with Chuck Schumer would much preferred to be dealing with Schumer than Harry Reid.


TALEV: Yes. It's true that there's no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon, but more broadly even if you're going to kind of jab each other and do passive-aggressive fun things like that is always better for Democrats and Republicans to be talking to each other to be in the same room together to be trying to find some kind of commonality. The complete breakdown of that in Congress has made a difficult situation into a terrible situation in the last 10 years, 15 years and more things like this should happen all the time.

KING: Right. And we'll watch, starting at 5:30 tonight. So we'll watch it start to fray again over the question of immigration. But again I just -- the Senate, it could be an interesting place. It used to be called the world's greatest liberate body. A lot of people doubt that right now, but here's that Chuck Schumer's take on being a senator.


SCHUMER: The Senate is an interesting place. It's only 100 people, and I like to tell my colleagues you really get to look into the souls of people. You get to see who they are. It's very hard in a body that works so closely with so few members, you know, to hide who you are. And I think the senators that have the most respect they're actually the people who get things done, not the people who make the most, you know, flamboyant or even fine speeches. And --


KING: The workhorses in the Senate. Again --


KING: Not show horses, right. Nice moment in Kentucky today.

We'll see if it carries over to the immigration debate. That starts tonight. Thank you for joining us at "Inside Politics." See you guys here tomorrow. Wolf starts right now.