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White House Under Fire; FBI Contradicts White House Timeline on Porter Allegations; GOP Senators Criticize White House Response to Scandal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 13, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Not only did the White House not get rid of Porter, but he was up for a promotion.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: President Trump's own FBI director tells a different story about what the White House knew and when it knew about a top aide allegedly having beaten his ex-wives. And now we're finding out the bureau flagged concerns about Rob Porter's security clearance almost a year ago.

The director of national intelligence says the United States is under attack, as all of America's intel chiefs agree that Russia is targeting 2018. Will President Trump finally acknowledge it?

Plus, if you're a fan of President Trump's $4.4 trillion budget proposal, I have got an airport to sell you. How the plan could change America, from how you get around to what you eat to what your kids are watching on TV.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are now one full week into the domestic scandal involving now former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, and yet the American people still do not know who knew what and when and why, why the White House staff kept someone around who had been accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend, questions that the White House continues to refuse to answer.

And of what we do know, it seems the White House explanation is not really holding up. The White House would lead to you believe they have been nothing but clear and consistent on this issue. In fact, Chief of Staff John Kelly just told "The Wall Street Journal" about the Porter situation -- quote -- "It was all done right."

That's just wrong. Just since yesterday, we have learned more that suggests the White House has not told the American people the full truth.

From the White House podium yesterday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders painted rosy picture of a White House motivated by a clear sense of right and wrong, seeking to remove with clarity and purpose someone who had been accused of abhorrent behavior.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 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.


TAPPER: What that narrative does not acknowledge is that the initial response from the White House was to prop up Porter and stand by Porter.

Before he had resigned, they were issuing glowing statements. Sanders praising Porter as -- quote -- "someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character."

Chief of Staff John Kelly saying -- quote -- "Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I cannot say enough good things about him."

And this morning, CNN learned that the rally around Porter went even further, that shortly after noon that day, last Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called to her office four top print reporters who had questions about Porter. They came to her office. There was Rob Porter.

He spoke with them off the record, sharing his side of the stories involving his two ex-wives and their very disturbing charges. Keep in mind, this was after "The Daily Mail" published two reports detailing the accusations and after that black eye photograph of Porter's first ex-wife was published by The Intercept.

One source says the White House saw this off--the-record discussion first reported by Politico as an opportunity for Porter to tell his side of the story. But whatever the motivations, make no mistake.

This was the communications staff of the White House facilitating an opportunity for an accused domestic abuser to tell journalists from "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal" and Axios that his ex-wives were liars.

All of it paid for by your tax dollars. And a clear contradiction to the narrative the White House is now pushing, that once they saw the black eye photo, Porter was essentially shown the door.

An even more stark contradiction came today as well from President Trump's handpicked FBI director testifying on Capitol Hill. The White House has been insisting that the background check into Porter by the FBI had still been ongoing, which was why the White House had allowed Porter to remain on staff with access to classified information.

This was something that Deputy Secretary Raj Shah said last week. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: His background investigation was ongoing. That process hadn't been completed, so we were relying on the information we had.


TAPPER: It is something that Sarah Sanders repeated yesterday.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: As I know Raj addressed last week, we let the process play out. It was ongoing.


TAPPER: But today FBI Director Christopher Wray said the White House had been repeatedly been briefed on Porter's background investigation beginning in March of last year and that investigation had been closed, closed, six months ago, back in July 2017.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March, and then a completed background investigation in late July that, soon thereafter, we received requests for follow-up inquiry.


And we did the follow-up and provided that information in November. And then we administratively closed the file in January, and then earlier this month, we received some additional information, and we passed that on as well.


TAPPER: Now, faced with this obvious contradiction, Sarah Sanders just a few minutes ago acknowledged that the FBI had finished its process, but she said the process had not been completed internally at the White House.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: The White House Personnel Security Office, which is staffed by career officials, would have, may have received information, but they had not completed their process.


TAPPER: OK, everyone got that? So, today, the process that was not completed was the one that was internal at the White House, the White House Personnel Office.

That, of course, is the exact opposite of what Sanders said just 24 hours ago. Take a listen.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: But, look, this is a process that isn't -- doesn't operate within the White House. It is handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community.


TAPPER: The White House has yet to be forthright and transparent with the American people about how this happened.

The most clarity that we have gotten so far might be from President Trump himself, who has wished Porter well in his future, but has not said or written one single word of support for the victims of his alleged abuse, or for survivors of domestic violence in general.

Instead, we have been misled and we've been lied to time and again. And for what? To cover up for the guy who allegedly did this?

Let's to go now to CNN's Jeff Zeleny, who is at the White House.

Jeff, you were in the briefing. How is the White House explaining what appear to be clear inconsistencies in the timeline revealed today?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tried to explain in one word.

When she was asked simply who is telling the truth here, who is giving the version of the events, the FBI or the White House, she said both are. And that's where the contradiction lies.

Today's version in the White House press briefing had the press secretary essentially trying to say that it was this office of White House Personnel Security that was essentially to blame for this, that they were still working this.

She did say for the first time, trying on clear up some of these discrepancies, that, yes, the FBI's portion of the investigation was closed. But then they required more field work.

Jake, what I am being told, that is to essentially refute what Rob Porter was saying, or going back to look into more information about what he was saying there. What Sarah Sanders did not say today was who in the West Wing actually got that information from that office.

Was it White House Chief of Staff John Kelly? Was it Don McGahn, the White House counsel's office? Jake, one thing I saw today, Sarah Sanders said no fewer than four times, to the best of my knowledge, under the information that I have been given. She was reading from a statement right in front of her.

So that to me was very telling here. Again, on day eight, this is still not answered, Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

I am joined now by my political panel.

We have with us Joan Walsh, the national affairs correspondent for "The Nation," Tara Setmayer, former communications director for Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and Joshua Green, whose new book, "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising," is out today in paperback.

Thanks, one and all, for being here.

Joan, let me start with you.

I don't even know where to begin really. But one day, she is saying the problem is the process, the investigation outside the White House, the FBI. Then the FBI director says, no, that's not true. She said, oh, the problem is internal -- now the problem -- the process was ongoing inside.

They don't even feel the need to be consistent one day to the next.

JOAN WALSH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There is going to be a third answer tomorrow, Jake. I think we can count on that.

I think we learned a couple things today. I think we learned that this White House doesn't care about the truth, so no one is really trying get very hard to get to the bottom. I think this White House doesn't care about domestic violence, and that's why they have been so cavalier.

And I think there's a way in which the president has intentionally brought this on by himself by reopening the whole controversy last Friday with his kind remarks about Rob Porter and no remarks about his victims, and then his crazy tweet on Saturday, which seemed to put him -- make him the opposition to the MeToo movement, make him part of the back lash with to MeToo.

I think he wants this. I think we know he likes these culture war issues. So I think he's come out. He doesn't care. He's shrugging off these allegations and casting his concern and his lot with the men who are accused. And he's one of them, actually.

TAPPER: Tara, Politico broke the story and CNN has confirmed it and added some more, which is that Wednesday, after the story broke, the black eye was still out there.

Sarah Sanders and the communications staff brought in these four reporters, with "The New York Times," "Washington Post," "Wall Street Journal" and Axios, they went in there. Rob Porter is there. He gives off the record his basic version of events.


How can this be interpreted as anything other than the White House facilitating an opportunity for an alleged domestic abuser to call his ex-wives liars? TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's exactly what

happened and they got caught.

And the fact that you see them going back and forth, we're almost a week into this and we still don't have the story straight is pretty remarkable. It just proves that they were covering for Rob Porter the entire time.

No one believes this idea that they're so upset about this and that the president -- Kellyanne Conway trying to convince us all that the president was so upset about this and he cares about domestic violence and abuse. B.S.

Because, if they did, Rob Porter would have been gone months ago. They were continuing. It is clear now that they were looking for reasons to keep him. How do we keep him, despite what they already knew.

Well, maybe they're not telling the truth. The president, well, he likes him. Look, he could have been our next Supreme Court justice, making jests about what a wonderful resume this guy has.

And yet when they came down to it, they were willing to take someone who is effective and who looks good, as opposed to taking the evidence that was in front of them. And this nonsense about due process. Due process is a criminal term. We're not talking about a criminal court of law here.

We're talking about discretion and discernment in private or public, in that it's the taxpayer paying this person's job. Discretion in that job. If they can't make that kind of judgment with this someone with this kind of credible evidence, it just goes to show you the level of incompetence in the White House.

TAPPER: So, Josh, Jeff Zeleny pointed this out, which was how many times Sarah Sanders used a particular turn of phrase when giving her answers today. Take a listen.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: I will give you the best information that I have and that's my understanding. We're giving you the best information that we're going to have. Obviously, the press team is not going to be as read in maybe as some other elements at a given moment on a variety of topics.

But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have on that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) going to ask you whether you have spoken specifically to General John Kelly and to the White House counsel to ask them these questions, because you have said, I'm not aware or I'm not sure.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I have. And this is the information that was given to me by those individuals. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I mean, she seems to be saying, trying to say to reporters, trying to say to anyone out there, like, I'm not being told everything.


That's what we're hearing privately from West Wing officials, is that they're not. And I think this is the heart of the problem. This is why we're entering week two of the scandal. This is political malpractice.

When you have a scandal like this, the first thing you do internally, you go and figure out the facts. What actually happened. You talk to your staff and get a story straight and say, OK, here's how we are going to approach this. You come to the press with a clear, consistent and factual explanation of what happened, so these things don't drag on.

It seems pretty clear to me that if the White House press secretary doesn't have this information, it is because her boss doesn't want her to have this information. And Trump for whatever reason doesn't seem to feel the need to stop this scandal that is roiling his White House, because if he did, he is the president. He could get out there and say you guys get your ducks in a row. And go out and let's end this thing today.

TAPPER: What is the reason for that? Why would they not want to -- if they want this behind them, you have to be transparent.

WALSH: I don't think the president particularly cares about getting it behind him.

I think he thinks it is more important to stand up for the right of this man who has been denied, as Tara says, due process, which is a complete misunderstanding of the term.

Yesterday, Sarah Sanders goes at the FBI. They came back at her today. Now you have her diminished in a way, incapable of really having confidence in what she's telling us. She's been called essentially a liar by Christopher Wray today. And so now she's standing by, this is best information I have. This is what I have been told.

SETMAYER: This has happened multiple times.

She goes out and says these things. And the president undermines -- that's right -- the president undermines her or the fact comes out and realizes that's not actually true.


SETMAYER: And it just diminishes the entire operation.

But I'll tell you what. If they had a professional communications shot at the White House, this never would have happened. This is what happens when you put people who are incompetent and inexperienced in these kind of positions.

I was a communications director in Congress, not the White House, but in Congress. There are just basic steps that you take in crisis management which didn't happen here. The first being, what actually happened, so what happened during all these stories changing doesn't happen.

That's the first step in crisis communications. Get it all out, the truth first.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We are going to talk much more.

The White House is standing by its statement that Porter's background check was not finished before he had resigned. But that is not what the FBI said. Can both be true? We're going to talk to an FBI expert for this one.

Stay with us.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Sticking with politics, today, America's top law enforcement officer, a man nominated for the job by the President himself, contradicted the White House over Rob Porter's security clearance.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the FBI completed Rob Porter's background check in July 2017. The FBI did receive a follow- up inquiry which it wrapped up in November, and then they, again, closed Porter's file in January.

This seems to directly contradict what the White House Press Secretary said just yesterday that Porter's background investigation was still open.

Joining me now is former House Intelligence Committee chairman, former FBI agent Mike Rogers, who also, as an FBI agent, did background checks for the George H.W. Bush administration.

Congressman, help us understand. The FBI said this was over last July. The White House said the investigation was still ongoing. The new explanation is that it was the White House personnel office. Is there a way that you can figure out how this is true?

MIKE ROGERS, FORMER CHAIRMAN, HOUSE PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE: Well, you know, let me tell you how I think this happened. So even in a presidential year like this, the sheer number of backlogs in the White House should raise some flags for some folks.

What I -- I was an organized crime agent in Chicago. They would pull us off our work to do backgrounds for an expedited purpose, meaning the senior jobs, to make sure that all of the leads -- remember, a lead would go to anywhere in the office wherever you've lived to do the work. [16:20:03] And so the interrogatory one back in, I think you said,

March likely had some derogatory information and that's why they submitted -- likely submitted that.

And so what they would do is if there's any derogatory information in a background, they put it right on the front cover, boom, and say here are the things we found you should be concerned about. And which likely led to them saying, probably shouldn't be getting a security clearance.

They finish that in July, meaning all of the leads, wherever he lived, the police reports, everything that they gathered up, was now in one place. And then that file went apparently to the White House.

What was interesting is they said they had a request for more information. So that meant that they had the clearance. They likely had all the police reports. They certainly had the statements from the women. Those women would have been interviewed if they completed the case.

And that package was then under consideration for someone in the White House, and that was that November meeting that they talked about. And then they considered it completely closed in, I think they said, January.

So somebody in the White House made the determination in January, despite what we see, we're going to let him do what he's doing and we're going to continue to give him an interim clearance.

TAPPER: Yesterday, it seemed that Sarah Sanders was blaming this on the FBI. FBI Director Wray made it pretty clear today that he did not think that was accurate. And today, Sanders said it was the White House personnel office that was still undergoing their process, whatever that is.

What reason might there be -- is it acceptable to grant a security clearance for somebody that quite obviously is susceptible to blackmail because of this derogatory information, as you call it, in his personnel file?

ROGERS: And, you know, violent behavior is another one. That's normally a no-go under any circumstances.

So not only is it just blackmail but you -- that means that that person is behaving one way at work and another way at home. That's why the intelligence agencies love that. That's a point of weakness of which they'll try to capitalize on.

But it also would lead one to believe that there is a different set of pattern of thinking that might -- you know, if you're not protecting that information in the way that you would or that you have a different way of thinking about that information at home, that could cause it to be disclosed.

All of that would be part of this investigation which is, again, is probably why the FBI said, oh, I don't think that this person should get a clearance based on what we know.

And again, it wasn't an incident where there was a he said/she said. There was a police report filed and an investigation by a local police department and then interviews with the witnesses, what happened after that.

Then there was another case of that where they had an incident also repeated -- reported to the police, and those folks would have been interviewed. So that you know that it was a pattern of activity.

The girlfriend incident sounds like it came later. It didn't sound like there was a police report. The FBI may or may not have interviewed that person but it came later when, apparently, she called into the White House. So there are lots of clues --

TAPPER: Yes, specifically around Thanksgiving.



ROGERS: And there are lots of clues in this that, hey, there is a problem, that you need to deal with it. So somebody in the White House -- was it John Kelly? Honestly, I'm not sure I could say that, but somebody in the White House made a decision that was clearly wrong.

TAPPER: I want to play Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats' comments on the security clearance process earlier today.


DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: The process is broken. It needs to be reformed. It doesn't -- as Senator Warner has previously said, it's not evolution, it's revolution.


TAPPER: Is the security clearance process broken, you think?

ROGERS: We've been -- yes. We've been working on trying to reform the way security clearances are given and to whom for years, even back when I was chairman of the Committee, trying to have the right discussions.

Some of it is old and antiquated. They're not using, you know, the more modern tools of social media and other things to try to connect into somebody's file to find out what their behavior is. All of that has been subject to debate.

And the fact that these things take so long because they're -- the way we do them is really, you know, 1950s gumshoe work which is fine except it's slow and probably not as accurate as it could be.

I don't think he was talking about what's going on inside the White House. I think he was talking about, writ large, the way security clearances are granted to employees of the federal government.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Mike Rogers, thanks so much. Always good to see you, sir.

ROGERS: Thank you.

TAPPER: Does the White House scandal put Chief of Staff John Kelly's job on the line?

Plus, the stark warning from the Director of National Intelligence who said today the U.S. is under attack. Who is attacking us? Coming up, stay with us.


TAPPER: The evolving story at the White House on Rob Porter's firing and who knew what when is raising huge questions among many Republicans about Chief of Staff John Kelly. My panel is back with me.

Josh, let me start with you. I want to play some sound from Republican senators talking about Chief of Staff Kelly and his leadership.


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: I think a management mistake, a bad management decision was made. General Kelly is the chief of staff so he ultimately bears the final responsibility.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: The White House said that they handled it poorly or could have handled it better. I agree.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even though John Kelly just said to the "Wall Street Journal" he didn't think that there was anything?

FLAKE: No, and he's wrong.


JOSHUA GREEN, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK": Well, clearly, nobody is going to stand up and defend this kind of behavior. I mean, the best you're going to get is the kind of passive voice "mistakes were made line" that we saw from Senator Kelly.

But the Republicans I talked to in the Hill are bothered by this, I mean, both for the obvious moral and ethical reasons that you don't want alleged wife beaters working in the West Wing but also because this is now entering its second week. I mean, there are other things that Republicans would prefer to be talking about.

A lot of these members of Congress are going to be up for re-election in nine months. And, you know, having this scandal out there and kind of energizing the Democratic backlash powered by women voters who are already fed up with Donald Trump is only going to imperil their chances of re-election. [16:30:03] TAPPER: And Steve Bannon told Josh, for the paperback of

his book, that he thinks the #MeToo movement actually poses a serious threat to President Trump and to Republicans.

JOAN WALSH, NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, "THE NATION": And to the patriarchy. We're going to bring it all down this year.