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CNN: President Trump Expressing Confidence In Kelly; House Oversight Investigating White House Handling Of Porter Scandal; Dems' Memo In Limbo After Trump Blocked Release; Trump Lawyer: I Paid Porn Star $130,000 Of My Own Money. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2018 - 11:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. Over a week since the Rob Porter abuse scandal imploded at the White House and the crisis seems to deepen by the day if not the White House briefing.

This morning on CNN, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee says his panel is demanding answers, Trey Gowdy joining the course of outrage, why did the White House keep Porter as a critical gatekeeper to the president even as the FBI background check revealed his ex-wives claims that he was physically abusive.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Just so I'm clear, will the Oversight Committee be launching an investigation into this?

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We did last night.

CAMEROTA: So, it's official?

GOWDY: We are directing inquires to people we think have access to information we don't have. I'm going to direct questions for the FBI that I expect them to answer.


KEILAR: Now just minutes ago, the top Republican in the House weighed in, Speaker Paul Ryan saying that he knows of the new investigation into the scandal and he fully supports it.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), HOUSE SPEAKER: Clearly, clearly, we should -- come on, clearly, we should all be condemning domestic violence and if a person who commits domestic violence gets in government, there's a breakdown in the system. There's a breakdown in the vetting system and that needs to be addressed.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KEILAR: CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. Kaitlan, tell us what you're hearing about support for John Kelly from the president?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, we're hearing a lot more support for him today, Brianna, than we were from White House officials last night, who were not going on record to say that they have confidence in John Kelly. But this morning they certainly are.

Now we know why. That's because in several conversations with aides and associates last night the president was expressing a lot of confidence in John Kelly, questioning where these rumors that he's going to replace John Kelly are coming from and telling people that he likes John Kelly and has faith in John Kelly.

So, that is the message coming out of the White House today. But it certainly has been amid all of this speculation from the Rob Porter fallout that the president could replace John Kelly with someone like his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney.

There is a role that the president plays in all of these speculations and that's because periodically, Brianna, from time to time, the president will question people what they think of someone for that position as chief of staff. It's certainly something the president contributes to as well.

But right now, the White House is saying that John Kelly's job is safe for the time being, for this Wednesday. So, we can say that right now that the president does have confidence in him -- Brianna.

KEILAR: For this Wednesday, maybe. We shall see. OK, Kaitlan, you talked about it, the rumors and there's a lot of leaks coming from the White House on the story. How is John Kelly himself responding to it?

COLLINS: That's right. If you remember when John Kelly was brought into the west wing that was one of his main goals was to stop the leaks that are coming out of the White House, and he's been largely successful with that with some of the meetings that he's had with senior staff.

But in the midst of this Rob Porter fallout, a lot of the White House aides are frustrated with John Kelly in the way that the chief of staff has handled this, despite the president saying that he has confidence in him.

John Kelly did hold a meeting with senior staff. In this meeting, he was expected to address the fallout, the criticism of the way that he's handled this this morning while striking a more conciliatory tone with staffers about how he handled the resignation of Rob Porter last week.

But it's safe to say, Brianna, that we are now in day eight of this scandal and it's still continuing to engulf this administration in their daily choices and meetings that are going on inside the west wing. KEILAR: It sure does. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much.

I want to bring in my panel to talk more about this. We have CNN White House correspondent, Abby Phillip, and CNN political analyst, David Drucker, and David is also a senior political correspondent for "The Washington Examiner."

OK. So, we just heard, David, Trey Gowdy saying that Congress is now going to get involved. How serious is this going to be? How significant is this?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is really interesting, right, because of all of the sort of scandals and mini scandals and uproars that have been engulfed the White House over the past year. It's the Porter affair that finally moves the Republican Congress to look into the administration in a critical way.

I mean, the Republicans in Congress have been looking into Hillary Clinton and looking into Barack Obama, one not president, one a former president. Now this is I think an indication of how serious --

KEILAR: What is it about this one then that has them doing that?

DRUCKER: Well, I think you have a couple of things here. I mean, Republicans are very concerned on -- from a political standpoint. There's a human aspect here. I don't think you can say that there are -- there's any Republican in the House of Representatives nor in the Senate that isn't concerned about domestic violence and doesn't take this as very seriously.

[11:05:03] There are senior Republican women serving on Capitol Hill that take this very seriously. But if you look at this politically as well, where do Republicans have the biggest problem?

What is their biggest vulnerability in the midterm elections, suburban Republican women, Republicans who are female and independent and tend to vote Republican, don't like the president and that's where their majorities could really suffer.

I think all of this is leading them to take a look at this, but it's so fascinating because this scandal is a complete mismanagement. They couldn't have necessarily known at the very beginning about Porter, but they could have managed this differently and instead as Abby knows they are talking all over themselves, which is making it worse.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I do also think that what is different about this is that it actually is somewhat limited scope. That if you listen to what Trey Gowdy is trying to say, there's a process that needs to be reformed by which people get security clearances.

I think that's pretty narrow as it comes for an investigation into the Trump administration, this is not a sort of sprawling special counsel investigation. So, that explains why Republicans are more willing to go there. It's a pretty discreet thing that they can address and hopefully fix and deal with this problem with suburban women, for example, and perhaps put it behind them. But you're not going to see Republicans going into sort of a deep dive on general investigations into the Trump administration. This one is happening because they can limit its scope.

KEILAR: But it's important to note when you listen to Trey Gowdy, he talks about -- he said he has spent a lot of time -- these were his words, he said I've spent a lot of time believing women and children who allege abuse when other people would not believe them. He said that.

So, you've got two things, right, Abby, you've got the security clearance, which is the national security issue and then you've got the messaging to -- an area of the voting public that Republicans are struggling with.

PHILLIP: No one can explain why to this day the White House has not had President Trump go out in public and say something about domestic violence. I mean, I think this is a real problem for them. Every time the president is in front of a camera, he declines to do that.

There was a statement read by Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a briefing a few days ago and it wasn't even put on paper, it was read from the briefing. We were told this came from the president's mind. I think that more needs to be done. Republicans realize that and if they can't push or force Trump to do it, they have to do it themselves.

DRUCKER: And it's really a no-brainer, Brianna, because the president could come out and say similar to what Paul Ryan just said, I deplore domestic violence, clearly there was a breakdown in the system in my White House, I'm going to get to the bottom of it.

There would be spinning there, and critics would still be critical, but he could really help put this to bed. Instead they are still dealing with this because they have 500 different stories and as we saw yesterday, the FBI director contradicts what Sarah Sanders have said the day before.

This is adding to -- the facts of why this is a problem haven't changed. What keeps changing is what the White House has to say about it. That right now is the big political problem.

KEILAR: So, the White House is saying, which you can't always take to the bank, but saying right now that John Kelly, the chief of staff still has the support of the president. We also know, though, that he's calling allies about possible replacements. We have been showing a graphic that shows some of the possibilities, including Kevin McCarthy, among House Republican leadership. How safe is his job right now?

PHILLIP: Well, I think it's important to remember that the president is often calling allies and friends talking about people that he likes --

KEILAR: Just throwing stuff against the wall kind of stuff?

PHILLIP: It's a common theme. He's been doing it since virtually the very beginning. That's one of the reasons when I talk to people in and around the White House, there's a lot of uncertainty about what he's going to do because he's been known to have these conversations constantly and be dissatisfied constantly, but sometimes to not act for a very long period of time.

So, I think that you can never really know as Kaitlan just said, for today, for right at this moment, you know, his job might be safe, but nobody knows what the president is going to wake up and want to do tomorrow and what is going to push him to do it.

I will say this Porter scandal happens to come right now, that -- and it's building on some dissatisfaction the president has had with his chief of staff for a while. But a lot of people are telling me, don't get the wrong impression, the president is not furious about Kelly's mismanagement of the Porter scandal in a vacuum. It's about a lot of other things.

KEILAR: Thank you so much to both of you, Abby Phillip and David Drucker.

I want to bring in our Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee joining us now. Sir, thanks for being with us.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: You just -- so you just heard your Republican colleague, Trey Gowdy, and also Speaker Ryan saying Congress is now going to get involved, in oversight of the Rob Porter matter and oversight of security clearances here.

[11:10:12] How significant is that to you?

LIEU: That's significant. I welcome the investigation. Let me say, prior to getting elected to Congress, I went through two security clearance investigations. I held two security clearances, and for those who understand the sanctity of the process, it's very demoralizing to see the White House make a mockery of the security clearance process.

There's no way Rob Porter should have had a security clearance when they found out last summer. He should have been terminated and had the security clearance stripped. There is no reason Jared Kushner should still be on an interim security clearance and 30 to 40 people should still be on interim security clearances.

KEILAR: You have written a letter to the FBI director saying as much, talking about your concerns with the number of Trump administration officials who are operating without that permanent security clearance. What do you want the FBI to do?

LIEU: I would like the FBI to provide greater transparency, to let us know what is actually happening, it's a black box right now. We don't know how they are doing these clearances and what information they've given to the White House. We get conflicting accounts from the FBI and from the White House.

It's also one reason I introduced legislation today with Ranking Member Jerry Nadler on Judiciary Committee. I'm on the Judiciary Committee as well as Ranking Member Cummings of Oversight.

It would require the White House to provide every three months information on who has security clearances and who's on interim security clearances and if it's over a year, they have to explain why.

KEILAR: So, what would that mean then -- what would you expect to, for instance, get information about when it comes to senior White House officials like Jared Kushner who you mentioned, who is working on Middle East peace and a lot of other important national security issues?

LIEU: Jared Kushner is a unique issue. He is a very important person, right? He is the son-in-law of the president. If he can't get a security clearance by now after over a year, that points to all sorts of red flags.

It's not an FBI personnel issue. It's not that they lack resources. It's that they see something in Jared's background that either makes him susceptible to blackmail or that he can't be trusted, and those really large red flags.

KEILAR: You think that it means he's not going to get the clearance or permanent clearance because he should be high priority?

LIEU: Absolutely. He should have had a permanent clearance last year. There's public reporting THAT he's not expected to get one, perhaps at all. And it's not a lack of resources, they are seeing something that Jared Kushner's actions or background that they don't want to give him a permanent security clearance.

KEILAR: The White House is now pointing to the personnel office saying it didn't get the FBI's information about Rob Porter to top White House officials. What's your reaction to that?

LIEU: We don't really know if we can believe the White House because they tell you one thing and then they contradict themselves the second day. That's why we introduced this legislation, which I believe can get bipartisan support.

It's just reporting. We just want the White House to be transparent and keep in mind the president has said that he wants to support transparency. So, we look forward to getting this bill into law and then American public can know what's actually happening in the White House.

KEILAR: Do you think the chief of staff, John Kelly, needs to resign?

LIEU: Absolutely. He is a four-star Marine general, who would have gone through multiple security clearance investigations himself to get security clearances. He understands the sanctity of this process, which is to prevent people from having access to classified information if they can't be trusted or blackmailed.

For him to allow this entire process to be questioned and give people security clearances who shouldn't have them, that is not something that we want in our chief of staff. I do believe he should step down.

KEILAR: You are a member of the Intel Committee. I want to ask you about the Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo, the Democratic memo. Republican Congressman Chris Stewart told CNN that the FBI wants 47 changes. Is that your understanding?

LIEU: So, I'm on the Judiciary Committee but we have co-oversight --

KEILAR: That's right.

LIEU: Over FISA as well as the FBI. So, I've read the Democratic memo multiple times and I simply disagree that there's anything in there that would endanger national security.

KEILAR: But is that your understanding that there's 47 changes? Do you know that? I'm just wondering if you heard of that because your Republican colleague has said that's the case.

LIEU: I don't know if that's true or not. I do that know my Republican colleague, Justin Amash (ph), has also said that the Democratic memo in full should be released.

KEILAR: OK, so if -- OK, so he said that in full it should be released, but it seems that there are some changes for sure that are wanted. We've heard from Adam Schiff, who is the top Democrat in charge of this memo, that he doesn't want things -- basically what he wants is if there are going to be redactions he wants redactions.

[11:15:01] He doesn't want to go back and rewrite it and revise it. So, that would then mean that a memo gets released with a lot of blanked out space over those several pages, right?

LIEU: It shouldn't have a lot of blanked out space because having read the memo, there is not information in there in my opinion that would reveal sources more methods.

KEILAR: But if the FBI says so, what do you think?

LIEU: Again, we're hearing this secondhand. Keep in mind, President Trump overrode the FBI's objections and releasing the Nunes memo, not clear why all of a sudden, he thinks that the FBI objections to a Democratic memo are any more important.

But I think it's up to the White House to do redactions if they want to, but I don't think there should be any. I think they are trying to play partisan politics because what the Democratic memo shows is it prints out facts about what actually happened and they directly contradict the Nunes memo and they show that the president is not vindicated whatsoever in this Russia investigation.

KEILAR: All right. Congressman Ted Lieu, thank you so much. Really appreciate that. Now still ahead, the president's attorney admitting he paid an adult film actress $130,000 ahead of the 2016 election. The lawyer, Michael Cohen, says there's nothing to see here. Does it pass the legal smell test? Our experts think it's pretty stinky.

Plus, dramatic new video of U.S. airstrikes on suspected Russia mercenaries launching an assault on a base in Syria where U.S. forces were helping fight ISIS. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis says the U.S. is puzzled by the attack.



KEILAR: More questions than answers this morning after a stunning admission from President Trump's personal lawyer and we're talking a lot more questions than answers here. That lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitting that he paid $130,000 of his own money to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, just weeks before the 2016 election.

Daniels whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, once said she had an affair with Trump about a dozen years ago. Cohen has denied that the affair happened. Here's his statement on that payment.

He said, "In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Miss Stephanie Clifford. Neither the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford and neither reimbursed me for the payment either directly or indirectly." A source tells CNN, Cohen only recently told the president about it.

CNN's M.J. Lee joining me now to talk about this. So, M.J., then the question remains did Cohen say way he paid Stormy Daniels.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, Brianna, this is the thing that really does not make sense. So, Michael Cohen is saying that he did make this payment of 130,000 and it happened sometime in 2016, very close to the election.

So, clearly, there are some motivation there that was related to the campaign, but keep in mind, that both Cohen and Stormy Daniels have previously very adamantly denied that there was ever an affair between Stormy Daniels and Trump, this alleged affair back in 2006.

So, if there was no affair, then why did Michael Cohen pay Stormy Daniels this money. Now this is his explanation that he gave for why he would have done this. He says, "Just because something isn't true doesn't mean that it can't cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump."

So, basically, he's saying out of loyalty to Trump and wanting to protect him, he used his own money, $130,000 to pay Stormy Daniels. This is not normal. I'm not a legal expert, but I know that this isn't normal.

The idea of a lawyer using this much money just because they are loyal and wanting to protect a client? That's just not normal.

KEILAR: No, I think that you are on firm ground to say that. We have a legal expert who will probably advise right after you. What's the White House saying about the payment?

LEE: Well, the White House hasn't said anything officially this morning to this new development, Cohen saying that he made this payment, but my colleague, Jim Acosta over at the White House has been talking to some former campaign and transition officials.

And Jim is basically being told that many of these folks were not aware of this payment at the time, but when the story first broke some weeks ago, Cohen started calling around to some of these former campaign staffers and explaining that the payment took place.

And they say his explanation back then is consistent with what he's saying now that this was his own money and as one former staffer explained to Jim, they basically said that Cohen is the guy who likes to fix things, that he realized that if this story got out, this would be problematic for Candidate Trump, and so he acted on his own to try to prevent that from happening.

KEILAR: Interesting. All right. M.J. Lee, thank you so much for that report.

Joining me now to talk more about it is CNN political reporter, Rebecca Berg, and also CNN contributor and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, Larry Nobel. Larry used to be general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, which is why you're the perfect person to ask.

OK, so Cohen saying he paid this money on his own back in 2016 and his client didn't know about that until recently. So, I wonder if that's believable and I also wonder to MJ's point if you can just respond, is that normal?

LARRY NOBLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's not normal. Is it believable? I was in private practice for a while, I never paid $130,000 to one my clients. The idea was they were supposed to pay me.

KEILAR: Not for one of their clients, to someone that your client didn't even -- sort of behalf of or to protect without their knowledge. Is that believable?

NOBLE: No, it's not believable, but you have to look at the statement. The statement is very carefully worded. What he says is that he was not reimbursed by the Trump Organization or Trump campaign, and he says the money was his.

But he doesn't say he wasn't reimbursed by Trump himself or any third person. We don't know if he was reimbursed.

[11:25:05] And even if he paid that money himself, it's not normal. If it's not something he normally did for Trump, paying $130,000 bills for him, then he made an illegal campaign contribution, or may have, it doesn't get him out of trouble. KEILAR: No, that would be a big problem. How do you make sense of all of this, Rebecca, as you look at this?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's very difficult to make sense of. As you've alluded, Brianna, I mean, the idea that Michael Cohen would make a payment this large at a key juncture in the campaign without the knowledge of Donald Trump or anyone else in his circle working on the campaign and working in his business, anyone at all, is just crazy. It doesn't pass the smell test.

KEILAR: But if he is now -- if it's not believable to your point, let's explore that, if it's not believable and this isn't exactly what happened, isn't he getting himself, Rebecca, into and potentially Donald Trump into a boatload of other problems if he's not being fully --

BERG: Potentially, yes. Not necessarily legal jeopardy as Larry knows, the FEC is often gridlocked and can be sort of toothless. There might not be any legal repercussions necessarily from Michael Cohen from a campaign finance perspective, but from a public relations perspective, absolutely there's a risk here.

We've seen the damage that the White House did by trying to cover up in the past week what happened with Rob Porter, who knew what when. If we find in this case as well there are inconsistencies in the story, but they weren't fully truthful, that will absolutely be a big deal and potentially very damaging for them. Although it's amazing to think -- I mean, this story on its face isn't damaging for the White House as well.

KEILAR: That's right. So, this payment happened -- it's a few weeks before the election. It's important to remember the timing here and the watch group that did bring this lawsuit common cause says Cohen is still in legal trouble as you point out. Doesn't matter with the FEC will see but this is the statement they put out.

"The timing and circumstances of the $130,000 payment to Daniels make it appear that the hush money was paid to Daniels in an effort to influence the election." So, they are saying it was in kind donation so it's still a violation. Respond to that and then also if this could potentially be an ethics violation for Cohen, who is a lawyer?

NOBLE: Well, first of all, on the FEC violation, yes, if he paid that money for the purpose of keeping her quiet, to help the campaign, and especially if Trump knew about it, then yes, it could very well be a campaign violation and excessive contribution.

And the campaign would have violated the law by not reporting it. This was not first time this has happened. We have a history of people saying they got gifts or they -- somebody was giving money for another reason, but it was in fact for the campaign.

As far as ethical problems, there are certain rules about the way a lawyer behaves and if he's not telling the truth then he could have ethical problems. Now, he could be telling the truth as far as he's gone. He could say I paid -- I paid the $130,000 to Stormy Daniels and the organization and campaign did not reimburse me. That may be true. But he's not telling us where the money came from and so he could be in trouble. As far as the FEC --

KEILAR: Well, he said it's his personal money.

NOBLE: But he didn't say he wasn't reimbursed. That may mean it came out of his pocket. Look, he's a lawyer and knows how to make the statements. Even if it came out of his personal pocket and it was his own money, then it still may be an illegal campaign contribution on his part, which may -- you know, may have ethical implications for him.

KEILAR: Larry and Rebecca, thank you so much to both of you.

Still ahead, the House Oversight Committee now launching an investigation into how the White House handled the employment of Rob Porter. This as Republican sources tell CNN they are frustrated over President Trump's failure to stem the crisis.