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White House: Trump Supports Victims of Domestic Violence; White House Blocks Release of Democratic Memo; Trump Budget to Cut Medicare, Raise Border Security Funding; White House Defends Lack of Security Clearances for Many Staffers. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Conflicting accounts. The White House tries to clear up confusion created by President Trump's repeatedly defending a former aide who quite after two ex-wives accused him of domestic assault and abuse. Why is the president defending Rob Porter?

[17:00:25] Blocking the memo. Democrats regroup after President Trump blocks the release of their memo rebutting Republican claims of a politically motivated conspiracy behind secret surveillance of a one- time Trump campaign adviser. Is the president's move just politics, or does the Democrats' memo really compromise sources and methods?

In the hole. President Trump unveils a new budget that slashes Medicare and other social programs, spends more on the military and adds at least another $7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. Is the self-styled king of debt blowing up the Republicans' image as the party of fiscal conservatives?

And cheering diplomacy. As North Korea grabs attention at the Winter Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence seems to open the door to negotiations Kim Jong-un. Could talks begin even before the North Korean leader gives up his missiles and nuclear weapons?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: It's been a day of late-breaking developments over at the White House. During a briefing that wrapped up less than an hour ago, press secretary Sanders insisted the president supports the victims of domestic violence, even though he hasn't said so on camera or on Twitter. I'll speak with Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who serves on the Judiciary and the Budget Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin right now with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, today's White House briefing was very heavy on damage control.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was, Wolf. The White House is still in clean-up mode, still answering questions about how one of its top aides, Rob Porter, could be allowed to work in the West Wing despite a background check that dredged up allegations of domestic abuse. President Trump tried to look past all of that today to tout his budget plans for the country. As the press secretary was saying, "Take my word for it. The president does support victims of domestic abuse."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... handle sensitive information without security clearance?

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump avoided the question, punting to press secretary Sarah Sanders to try to defend the West Wing's handling of Rob Porter, a top aide whose history of alleged domestic abuse appears to have been covered up by the White House.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Above all, the president supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process. We've addressed this situation extensively, and we have nothing more to add at this time on that topic.

ACOSTA: Sanders attempted to explain why the White House did not remove Porter from his crucial position handling sensitive documents for the president without a full security clearance.

CNN has learned dozens of White House staffers like Porter and even the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are still going through the security clearance process. Edward Snowden, a former intelligence official who leaked classified material to the media, tweeted, "I got a security clearance faster than half of this White House."

SANDERS: Frankly, if you guys have such concern with classified information, there's plenty of it that's leaked out of Hill, that's leaked out of other communities well beyond the White House walls.

ACOSTA: Asked why there are some staffers without full security clearances, Sanders pointed elsewhere.

SANDERS: Again, that's a question that the FBI and other intelligence communities, they make that determination. That's not something that's decided by the White House.

ACOSTA: Publicly the president still sounds like he's defending Porter, tweeting over the weekend, "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's no recovery for someone falsely accused. Life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as due process?"

That after he all but stood up for Porter Friday.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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. He did a very good job while he was at the White House. ACOSTA (on camera): Why is he seemingly defending Mr. Porter

publicly? Is it because he has faced his own allegations? Is there some sensitivity there? Is that why that is?

SANDERS: Look, as I just said, and I'll repeat it again. The president and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly.

ACOSTA: But is there a tone deafness there? Is there just a -- being on the wrong side of things?

SANDERS: I don't think the president being on -- support due process for any allegations is -- not tone deaf. I think it is allowing things to be investigated and a mere allegation not being the determining factor. He's not taking a side necessarily one way or the other on any specific issue here.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president's comments prompted one of Porter's accusers to slam Mr. Trump in "TIME" magazine, writing, "In light of the president's and the White House's continued dismissal of me and Colbie, I want to assure you my truth has not been diminished."

The White House is also embroiled in a fight over the president's decision to block the release of the memo from House Democrats, defending the government's investigation into Trump campaign contacts with the Russians.

HOGAN GRIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: This report from the Democrats does not keep American lives safe. What it does is it reveals serious national security information that could, quite frankly, put our lives at risk, and the president is not going to do that.

ACOSTA: Democrats say Americans have a right to read their memo after the White House quickly declassified the memo from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.

REP. JERROLD NUNES (D), NEW YORK: I have read the Schiff memo. I have read the Nunes memo. I've read the underlying documents. The Schiff memo will show how deliberately misleading and dishonest the Nunes memo is. And it is mis -- it is totally misleading. Even the FBI said it was materially misleading. I think it's worth showing that you can't believe anything these people put out.

ACOSTA: Those issues are crowding out the president's message of the week: rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, all while he's calling for big increases in government spending as part of his proposed budget for next year.

Under the president's plan, the deficit would soar by $7 trillion over the next decade while spending more on border security, including a wall, and cutting programs like Medicare. The president wants to see a big jump in spending on the nation's nuclear arsenal.

TRUMP: Frankly, we have to do it because others are doing it. If they stop, we'll stop. But they're not stopping, so if they're not going to stop, we're going to be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you've never seen before.

ACOSTA: The president is seeking cuts in Medicare despite promising to protect the program during the campaign.

TRUMP: Save Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.

We are going to protect your Social Security and Medicare.

I am going to protect and save your Social Security and your Medicare. You made a deal a long time ago.


ACOSTA: Now, as for the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, pointing to the FBI as to why there are some staffers working without full security clearances, it's important to note the FBI says it's up to the White House to act on information that comes from background checks.

Also, Sanders simply not say whether the White House counsel, Don McGahn, knew about Porter's past at some point last year; and she went on to say that McGahn's standing at the White House has not changed. That's along with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, and the communications director, Hope Hicks. All of their jobs appear to be safe for now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How are they defending the president's projected proposed cuts? Hundreds of billions of dollars over the next ten years in Medicare and Medicaid after he repeatedly promised during campaign, no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid?

ACOSTA: I think it's a big question, Wolf. And you know, one of the things that goes on here at the White House is that, when we all focus on these shiny object stories of the day, these are the sorts of things that don't get covered very much.

But this White House is absolutely proposing big cuts to entitlement programs, big cuts to domestic programs, and Medicare is one of them. What we've heard from the White House and Republicans up on Capitol Hill is that they're streamlining and reforming this program, but that is not at all in sync with what the president said during the campaign. He held himself out as a savior of Medicare during the campaign, chastising fellow Republicans for wanting to cut the program. He was saying he was going to preserve it, but that is changing now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right. Thanks so much. Jim Acosta over at the White House.

Let's dig deeper -- dig deeper on the question of security clearances for the president's top advisors. Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is with me. Evan, Sarah Sanders just now pointed the finger at the FBI and the intelligence community for not granting those kinds of clearances, insisting it's up to them, not necessarily up to the White House.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: And Wolf, that's just plain nonsense. It just doesn't work that way. The FBI does the background check investigation for these people, and the White House makes a decision.

Look, it's the president's decision who he wants working at the White House. Obviously, that's his power. He is the ultimate security clearance authority. He's the ultimate person who could decide who gets to see classified information. So it's really up to the president.

The president has decided that Rob Porter -- and his staff decided that Rob Porter needed to stay in his job, even get promoted, despite the fact that there was information coming from the FBI, from that background check, that was being passed to people at the White House, that was raising questions as to whether he would ever qualify for a permanent security clearance.

Look, that's a decision that the White House owns, and they can't just punt this to the FBI. The FBI is not president. Donald Trump is president.

BLITZER: And they told Don McGahn, the White House counsel, and the chief of staff, John Kelly, months ago there was a problem with the clearances for Rob Porter.

[17:10:05] PEREZ: Exactly. They were passing information to the White House counsel's office, the White House security office. All of these people are -- they act on the information that is being produced by the FBI in these background checks, the investigation that's being done by the FBI.

And again, it's their final say as to who gets a security clearance, because the FBI does not control that process. This is a White House- driven process. And again, the president is the one who owns these decisions.

BLITZER: Yes, I want to put that on the screen. The FBI statement, let me read it to our viewers: "The FBI does not grant, deny or otherwise adjudicate security clearances for individuals on behalf of these agencies, nor does it make any security clearance recommendations. After the FBI has completed a background investigation, it provides the information to the agency, adjudicator, authority who determines whether to grant or deny the security clearance."

So they provided the information to the White House and they decided, you know what? They're going to still let these individuals who don't have permanent security clearances, even though they review sensitive national security, classified information, continue on the job.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. And look, I mean, there were a number of people who there were questions about whether or not they would ever get a permanent security clearance, including Sebastian Gorka and others who have since left the White House. And clearly, a decision was made that Rob Porter was important enough that he needed to stay there and even get promoted in the past year, despite the fact that there was this information that was being brought in by the FBI investigators.

BLITZER: And Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior advisor, he still doesn't have full security clearance.

PEREZ: He doesn't. And keep in mind, the -- one reason might be is the fact that he failed to disclose all of those foreign contacts in his SF-86 form, the form that he was supposed to fill out in order to get that security clearance. Again, the FBI didn't tell him to fill that form out incompletely, Wolf, to leave out all these dozens of contacts. He did that.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, good reporting as usual. Thank you very much.

Let's talk a little bit more about all of this. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York is joining us. He's a Democrat who serves on both the Judiciary and Budget Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So what do you make of the White House pointing to the FBI on dozens of staffers who are working without full security clearance?

JEFFRIES: Well, it's a classic example of White House misdirection. I mean, we've spent the last year plus with a Trump administration trying to convince the American people that up is down, black is white, that the sun is the moon. And this is another example of trying on cast blame on someone other than the dysfunction within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As was just illustrated, the buck stops with the president and the White House as it relates to making sure that people charged with protecting the safety and security of the American people as members of the executive branch at the highest possible level, have a security clearance. They consistently failed to do so, is frightening. It actually undermines our national security, jeopardizes the safety and security of the American people, and that's highly problematic.

BLITZER: So what's the appropriate next step?

JEFFRIES: Well, the appropriate next step would be for members of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate to conduct oversight hearings to get to the bottom of what happened.

But you know, the American people shouldn't hold their breath, at least as it relates to what's been happening in the House of Representatives, where there's been a meaningful failure to undertake our responsibilities of being a check and balance on the executive branch. But the American people do deserve answers. They deserve a functioning government. They deserve for us in the Congress to try to get to the bottom of what has been happening with all of the chaos, crisis and confusion emanating from the Trump administration.

Maybe my colleagues in the House of Representatives will decide to finally undertake their oversight responsibilities. Hopefully, that will be the case. I'm not sure.

BLITZER: Should the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, resign? And what about the White House counsel, Don McGahn? They both knew about the allegations of abuse by the two ex-wives against Rob Porter. They knew he wasn't getting his full security clearances but apparently did nothing.

JEFFRIES: Well, I'm not sure whether they should resign or not, but we do need to scrutinize their actions. And I've been very disappointed with the White House chief of staff, in particular. He was supposed to be the adult in the room and was supposed to get things under control in terms of Donald Trump, perhaps encouraging him to behave in a more presidential fashion.

And what we've seen instead is that, essentially, the White House chief of staff, Mr. Kelly, has become more like Donald Trump in his consistent behavior. That's been very disappointing. I think the American people deserve better.

And as it relates to the White House counsel, again, we need some further clarity as to whether he has been facilitating some of Donald Trump's worst tendencies at times or, in other instances, apparently, refuse to do things like execute the order to fire the special counsel.

[17:15:12] It can't be an easy job to work within the White House at this particular point in time, but they still owe an obligation to the American people to do the right thing, and it's not clear that they've met that test.

BLITZER: The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, is meeting with the FBI to try and get the Democratic memo responding to the Nunes allegations of impropriety at the FBI released. Are you confident the White House will eventually release the Democratic memo?

JEFFRIES: I'm not confident at all, because we've seen a consistent pattern of covering things up that the White House or Donald Trump feels will undermine his standing amongst the American people, largely connected to the fact that it's growing increasingly likely that there was some conspiracy, some collusion between high-level members of the Trump campaign, Vladimir Putin and Russian spies to sell out our democracy.

And whenever people have gotten close to potentially exposing things to the American people that Donald Trump is uncomfortable with, we've seen instances like James Comey being fired. We've seen the refusal for Donald Trump to reveal his taxes to the American people. We've seen the deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, be fired after she expressed concern that Michael Flynn could be a Russian asset sitting in the White House, subject to being blackmailed.

And so again, here in this instance, the White House disregards the FBI and Department of Justice concerns that were expressed with regard to the Nunes memo, which was a big dud, Wolf, by the way. But then all of a sudden, the FBI and the Department of Justice have renewed credibility as it relates to the Democratic memo, which would have simply provided further clarity and transparency to the American people about what really happened in the FISA court application.

BLITZER: Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, thanks so much for joining us.

JEFFRIES: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll have more on the Democrats' efforts to get President Trump to approve the release of their memo defending FBI surveillance practices. Will it ever, though, see the light of day?

And the Olympics are giving North Korea plenty to cheer about. But will Kim Jong-un's olive branch result in direct talks with the United States?


[17:21:54] BLITZER: The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee says he will meet with FBI officials in an effort to gain release of a memo rebutting Republicans' claims of politically- motivated surveillance of a former Trump campaign advisor.

Let's go straight to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill. Manu, so where do things stand with the Democratic rebuttal memo?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Adam Schiff wants to hear those concerns that were laid out, that were discussed in that letter from the Justice Department, sent to the Senate -- House Intelligence Committee, raising those -- calling for changes to the letter before the president would allow for its public release.

Now what Schiff is saying that he wants to get readout from the FBI. And he's prepared to make those necessary redactions before allowing for it to move forward.

Now, the question that still remains is how significant these redactions are and whether or not Schiff will agree with all of the redactions that the Justice Department and the FBI have laid out.

Remember, Wolf, this came on Friday night as members of the House had left already for the weekend. They're returning tomorrow for session after the extended Friday-night session that extended all the way to early Friday morning to reopen the government after that brief shutdown.

So members have not really gotten a chance to look at all of the redactions that the Justice Department is calling for, but expect that decision to happen very soon. And at that point the White House will almost certainly have another decision to make about whether or not to allow the release of the memo after they presumably agree to these redactions. And then we'll see what will eventually be made public and how much of that will rebut the Nunes memo which argued completely opposite of what the Schiff memo is supposed to regarding the Justice Department's surveillance of a Trump advisor during the 2016 campaign season, Wolf.

BLITZER: The Senate intelligence committee, as you know, Manu, they're going to be holding a public open hearing tomorrow on some very sensitive issues. Give us a preview. What are we likely to see?

RAJU: Yes, this is a significant hearing, because you have six senior members of the intelligence community testifying. The director of national intelligence, Dan Coates; the CIA director, Mike Pompeo; as well as the NSA director, Mike Rogers, all under oath talking about a wide range of issues.

And undoubtedly, Russia will come up, Russia meddling, the efforts by the United States to try to protect against Russia. As well as we'll get a chance to hear from the members themselves their lingering questions about efforts among the Trump campaign to potentially work with Russian officials during the campaign season.

And what they will also see, Wolf, is Senator Richard Burr, who will also be in display in this meeting. He's someone who has tried to strike a different tone than the House Intelligence Committee's chairman, Devin Nunes, trying to avoid all the controversy that Nunes has gotten himself into in the middle of this investigation. Burr saying just last week, he did not think the Nunes memo should be public.

And also, he just said that there's a fair amount they want to investigate, but he did not want to discuss the areas of concerns with his investigation that he wants to continue to explore.

[17:25:06] But Wolf, it's very clear that this committee is moving forward on a different path. They're trying to put together an interim report about election security, election vulnerabilities, heading into the 2018 midterms. And this comes as the House Intelligence Committee has devolved into more partisan gridlock amid this fight over this Nunes memo and questions about what's going to happen to the Schiff memo if the White House ultimately agrees to its release, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. We'll watch that Senate Intelligence Committee hearing closely tomorrow. Manu, thanks as usual.

Coming up, as North Korean athletes and cheerleaders try to make a splash over at the Olympics, will the behind-the-scenes diplomacy result in direct talks between Kim Jong-un's regime and the United States?


BLITZER: The White House today is in major clean-up mode once again as the administration struggles to explain why officials failed to take action against a top staffer at the White House facing abuse allegations from two ex-wives. That staffer, Rob Porter, he stayed on until news reports emerged last week.

[17:30:46] Let's dig deeper with our experts. Why can't -- Chris Cillizza, why can't they seem to get on the same page and send out the same message?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: The same reason they often can't get on the same page. The president views this one way, and his White House is trying to paint it as though he views it another way.

We've talked about this many times before, Wolf. I always think his Twitter feed is the best, closest approximation of what he is thinking at any given moment. And his Twitter feed on Saturday made very clear, though it didn't mention Rob Porter's name, but it made very clear, essentially, that why are the -- why are people casting aspersions, and we need to wait.

That's not anything close to what Sarah Sanders said today, even though she said that Trump dictated the statement. If he took the time to do that, he could have taken a minute at top of, let's say, the infrastructure meeting that he had today and say, "You know, there's been a lot of controversy about this. I want to set the record straight," and deliver almost exactly the statement Sarah Sanders did. He could also have tweeted it out. We know he enjoys doing that.

That he didn't tells you that -- I just don't know that he believes it. I think what he tweets tends to be what he believes. And the White -- his White House tries to mold that into something that's a little bit more acceptable. But then he often then runs around them again and says, "No, actually, I do think what I said." And my guess is we may be getting a tweet or a statement like that.

BLITZER: Yes. That tweet, I'll just read a line from it. "People's lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation." And the day before, you know, Rebecca, when he was in the Oval Office, he was glowing in his praise of Rob Porter, who deserves, you know, a second chance and a huge future ahead of him.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And in the same statement, the president mentioned that Rob Porter had denied that allegation. He didn't mention the women at all, by the way.

And so really, I mean, let's not overthink this. Right? The president has tweeted about it. He made his own public statement in person about it. This is what the president believes, and I think you have to twist yourself into knots to make the case that he believes something else.

BLITZER: And the White House counsel is the person, Laura, who's in connection, who works together with the FBI. The FBI gives that information to the White House counsel. And he apparently knew for months that there was a serious problem, and Rob Porter was not going to get permanent full security clearances.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, of all people who should understand the risk of having someone with such serious accusations of crimes. These are actual crimes. Certainly, the White House counsel, Don McGahn, would understand that risk, the least of which being blackmail, right?

But the other thing is that this is not the first time this has happened. We all remember back in January, when Sally Yates warned Don McGahn about then national security advisor Michael Flynn. This is not the second time where McGahn has been warned about somebody's past, and the question is, well, what did he do about it?

BLITZER: He didn't do anything. He didn't do anything about Michael Flynn until it was reported in the newspapers about what was going on.

Bianna, the spin from the White House today, you heard Sarah Sanders, the president supports victims of domestic abuse. But we still haven't heard him either tweet that or say that. We've heard his aides quote him as saying that.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And of course, it means so much more coming from the president, especially after we had that visual of Porter's first wife and the black eye that she sustained.

And what makes this even more puzzling is the president, for all intents and purposes, could have had legitimate plausible deniability going into this. All of the reporting suggests that he may not have known about Rob Porter's past, and this was more of a McGahn and Kelly problem.

But instead of the president just saying, you know, "I'm angry that I didn't know. This is not condoned in the White House. Of course I support the women," he chose to defend Rob Porter publicly. Yet behind closed doors, he's apparently calling him garbage or a sick puppy. So I don't understand the logic behind the president's doubling down on defending him when he didn't even have to go there in the first place.

Also notable is the silence that we're hearing from the first lady and Ivanka Trump, as well. Typically, Ivanka has at least come forward in past crises and spoken out, and maybe she's disagreed with the president publicly in the past. We haven't heard much from her, as well.

[17:35:09] BLITZER: Any explanation for that?

CILLIZZA: No. Other than she doesn't have anything positive to say would be my guess. She's usually -- she's spoken out in a condemning way of behaviors not related to her father, essentially.

The thing that's -- I think Rebecca is exactly right. We tend to overthink these things. His defense, Donald Trump's defense of Roger Ailes, his defense of Bill O'Reilly, his defense of Roy Moore, his defense of Rob Porter, what do those all have in common? He believes the men against, in each of those situations, multiple women, not just one, multiple women alleging either sexual assault or domestic abuse, physical abuse, and says, "Well, we have to wait." In all of those situations.

Now when does he not do that? When it's John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat, accused of sexually inappropriate misbehavior in the workplace; Al Franken, accused -- Democratic senator, former Democratic senator accused of forcible groping and unwanted kissing.

So if they are people he is friends with, men who he is friends with and agrees with or in his party, there is this response. If they are Democrats, there is this other response. I mean, those are sort of -- it's hard to argue. Those are not opinions I have just voiced. Those are facts based on how he has reacted. He has -- it is a case of situational ethics in the first sort.

BLITZER: And you saw the reports -- and Bianna mentioned this, Rebecca -- that behind the scenes, his aides are saying he did call Rob Porter a sick puppy.

BERG: Right. Well, that sounds like spin, Wolf, to be honest. It might be true, but it sounds like spin. Because the White House at this point, as we saw in the press briefing today, they're trying to make the president's public statements and his tweet sound as good as possible in context. And that's not easy, because what he did was he defended Rob Porter. He tried to cast doubt on these allegations against him, very serious, on-the-record allegations from multiple women. The White House is just trying to make this look as good as possible.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: And look at Rob Porter's defense. I mean, all that he's said is there's more to the story. And "yes, I took that picture." Not "Yes, I took that picture after she tripped over a rock." It was, "Yes, I took that picture." What does that suggest? Nothing. He said that this happened and that he took the photo, and yet, the president and others in the administration say "This is not the man we knew." I mean, you hear this time and time again in these sort of instances of domestic abuse.

The person you work may not be the person at home with a spouse. One has nothing to do with the other.

BLITZER: And Laura, it puts the White House officials in an extremely embarrassing and awkward position, the conflicting spin that is coming out.

JARRETT: Especially in the case of General Kelly. I mean, you have the "Washington Post" having a play by play of what is typically a pretty confidential meeting. But aides are coming out saying they don't believe that he's truthful. I mean, that's an -- that's an incredible breach.

But also to, I mean, everyone else's point, the concept of due process here is such an interesting invocation. I mean, that's a -- that's a legal standard. CILLIZZA: Correct.

JARRETT: That's a bar that you use in court. Typically, you don't think that a White House position would need that. Typically, that's a privilege to serve in the White House. And even people who have various low-level crimes for smoking marijuana in their youth, for instance, don't get past the background check.

CILLIZZA: And people who -- thank you for making that point. Because that's exactly -- people say to me on Twitter constantly, "OH, you don't believe in due process?" Well, no, I believe -- this is a -- this is not a legal proceeding. The president gets to choose the sort of people who are around him. I'm not -- I'm not getting into Rob Porter's legal burden. The president chooses these people. These are the best people according to him. So does he adjudge Rob Porter to be among those people? And if not, why didn't General Kelly act? I mean...

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stick around. There's more we need to assess. We'll take a quick break. New information coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll be right back.


[17:43:34] BLITZER: Let's get back to our panel. Bianna, the whole issue of security clearances over at the White House, we've been reporting, what, 30 or 40 political appointees, they have access to classified information on an interim basis, but they don't have full security clearances. It's pretty shocking, a year plus into this -- year-plus into this administration the White House is now blaming the FBI, not accepting the blame themselves.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, it seems to fit the pattern of convenience. When it's convenient to blame especially the FBI, then they do, and they attack them. When they reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton, they praise the FBI.

I mean, look, these -- this backlog seems to be something that's not only affected this administration. It's something we've seen in the past. But not to this scope and not in these numbers.

And it would be a different story if those within the administration and those close to the president had just found out about this last week when it was reported.

You know, what makes this a controversy is that people like General Kelly and McGahn knew about Rob Porter in particular, and many others, including Jared Kushner, for months. For months. And yet, now we're just hearing them come up with, you know, various stories, scrambling in defense. So I'm not sure that the logic of blaming of the FBI so many days later, by the way, is a smart move for the president.

BLITZER: Yes, as you know, Chris, the FBI put out a statement saying, "We provide the background information..."

CILLIZZA: Correct. BLITZER: "... to the agency involved, in this case, the White House. They have to decide whether to keep the individual there."

CILLIZZA: Yes. I mean, Bianna's right about that sort of when convenience strikes, the FBI can be either be a good or a bad thing for this administration.

I always return to people about the Rob Porter situation, look, the allegations of the mental and physical abuse are obviously very serious, and I think the White House has botched the response. That largely is because I think Donald Trump is not in step with his White House.

There is also the national security piece of this that is not insignificant. People look at staff secretary and think, well, he's just like a junior underling. This guy was literally the one giving the papers to Donald Trump.

The reason that John Kelly liked him so much and relied on him so much is because John Kelly was brought in to limit the flow of information to Donald Trump. Both in terms of people and what he read, saw. That's what Rob Porter did.

So this is a person who was handling, I assume, classified, top-secret documents, as well as lots of other information. John Kelly knew that the security clearance was held up. He's either the least curious person in history not to look into that, given what Rob Porter's job was, or he didn't want to know the answer.

BLITZER: And the great concern, very quickly, is that an individual with that kind of background potentially could be subject to blackmail by a foreign adversary.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN REPORTER: Absolutely. That's why the FBI does this and makes -- you know, it makes its findings clear. But it doesn't make a recommendation.


JARRETT: It doesn't adjudicate these. That is up to the White House to try to figure out how to get its arms around this. But, I mean, just think about it. We wouldn't know about any of this if it wasn't for the "Daily Mail." It wasn't like this had come out. It wasn't like the White House was forthcoming with --

CILLIZZA: It was involuntary.


JARRETT: None of this information would have come out except for the reporting on it.

BLITZER: And that's what led to all of this. Guys, stick around. Don't go too far away.

There's more news, a potential diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula. Are the Winter Olympic Games giving pressure to direct -- yes, direct -- talks between the United States and Kim Jong-un's regime?


[17:51:42] BLITZER: New tonight, a possible shift in the Trump administration's diplomatic efforts on the Korean Peninsula. As the Winter Olympics unfold in South Korea, some see signs of possible talks between the United States and the regime of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Brian Todd is joining us now. Brian, what else can you tell us?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning that the ball is moving a little bit forward toward a possible diplomatic breakthrough in this standoff, even as the North Koreans seek to score publicity points at the Winter Olympics.


TODD (voice-over): North Korea's propaganda offensive at the Olympics. More than 200 cheerleaders, over 10 times the number of athletes North Korea sent to the games, chanting, cheer up and victory to our team.

At the same time, there are hints tonight of a possible new diplomatic opening to Kim Jong-un's regime from the Trump administration.

Vice President Mike Pence told "The Washington Post" there could be new U.S. talks with North Korea before the regime takes steps to scale back its nuclear program.

The Vice President was clear that the administration would still keep up its campaign of intense sanctions and, quote, maximum pressure on North Korea but at the same time, saying, quote, if you want to talk, we'll talk.

JOSH ROGIN, COLUMNIST FOR GLOBAL OPINIONS, THE WASHINGTON POST: What's new is that, now, the White House is saying to the South Koreans and the North Koreans, we'll have talks about pre-conditions although you won't get sanctions relief.

TODD (voice-over): A dramatic change of course after the U.S. maintained, for more than a decade, that new talks could only begin after the regime committed to take steps to get rid of its nuclear program. So what does this mean?

MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA AND JAPAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, it does appear that the administration is more willing to talk. But the fundamental problem remains, talk about what? The North Koreans have no intention, it appears, of going back to their original agreement to denuclearize, and the U.S. has no intention nor should we of accepting this nuclear weapon state.

TODD (voice-over): While the administration says everyone's on board, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to downplay the idea that Pence has made a diplomatic breakthrough.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: It's really up to the North Koreans to decide when they're ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way.

TODD (voice-over): Meantime tonight, Pence is being criticized by the North Koreans for behavior at the games, for not making eye contact with Kim Jong-un's sister at the opening ceremonies, and not standing or clapping when the joint Korean team entered the stadium.

A senior diplomatic source close to North Korea telling CNN that was a, quote, missed opportunity for diplomacy. But many North Korea watchers say the Vice President handled this well and shouldn't necessarily be seen making positive gestures to the brutal regime.

Kim's sister, meanwhile, has invited South Korea's President to Pyeongyang.

DEAN CHENG, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: There absolutely is an attempt on drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Let me note here that the -- there have been previous summits, both in 2000 and 2007, between South Korean leaders and North Korean leaders. None of that stopped the North Korean nuclear weapons program.


TODD: Now, if there are talks between the U.S. and North Korea or if there is at least movement toward talks, what could derail it all? Former diplomats and White House officials say a few things could.

If the U.S. and South Korea hold joint military exercises right after the Olympics, North Korea could use that as an excuse to derail any talks.

The Kim regime could find another excuse like sanctions. Or if there's another personal war of words between Kim and President Trump, this diplomatic opening could close very quickly, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of this story for sure. Brian, thank you.

[17:54:59] Coming up, breaking news. The White House insists President Trump cares about the victims of domestic violence, but why isn't he saying so in public or on Twitter?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Misplaced sympathy. The White House insists that President Trump takes domestic violence very seriously despite his statements of praise and concern for a former aide accused of assaulting his ex-wives.

Now, the Trump team is facing serious questions about who knew what and when. Why can't they get their story straight? [17:59:55] Insecurity. The growing scandal reveals dozens of White

House workers still without full security clearances, including the President's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Why is the White House blaming the FBI?

Lack of transparency. Democrats try again to get their memo defending the FBI made public.