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Congress Investigating White House Handling of Rob Porter Abuse Allegations; Trey Gowdy Slams Congress; Russian Fighters Among 100 Killed in U.S Airstrikes in Syria; Intel Chief: Security Clearance Process is "Broken"; DNI Chief Worries No Single Agency to Counter Russia Election Meddling; Trump Speaks on Infrastructure. Aired 11:30- 12p ET

Aired February 14, 2018 - 11:30   ET



[11:33:02] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news. Congress is now investigating the White House handling of domestic abuse allegations against senior Trump aide, Rob Porter. The top Republican on House Oversight, Trey Gowdy, tells CNN that his committee launched its investigation last night. And it comes more than a week after allegations were made public that Porter abused his two ex-wives. The official White House story on Porter keeps changing by the day and Republicans are frustrated over the president's failure to quiet the crisis. Moments ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the White House has work to do to fix the vetting system when it comes to security clearances.

Joining me now to discuss are Steve Cortes, our CNN political commentator and former Trump campaign adviser. And Joe Trippe with us as well, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist.

Steve, you're looking at more than a week of this scandal. It seems at this point that John Kelly being fired -- resigning is a real possibility. Is that something that will help Republicans politically or is it really too late to fully clean this up at this point?

STEVE CORTES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I don't think it's too late to clean up this mess. I think we need to hear from the president himself. He needs to come out and show real empathy for all victims of domestic abuse, but particularly for the victims of Rob Porter, to say they were taking them seriously and mistakes made in the process. Also we need to find out who made those mistakes and there have to be consequences for those people. I certainly, greatly respect John Kelly, I don't want to see him go. I think he's been a big part of the success of the administration.

That's the biggest problem here politically speaking, the fact for a week and eight days, I guess, all I talked about on air is Rob Porter when I want to talk about an economy soaring and ISIS on the run and immigration plans on the table. These are the policy prescriptions and successes I want to be talking about, not this scandal.

KEILAR: Do you agree with Steve, Joe, on what the White House should do? And is there a way for the White House to handle this without John Kelly leaving?

[11:35:07] JOE TRIPPE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There may be a way to handle it without John Kelly leaving. But I agree with Steve, that it's the president. He's got to speak out and make it clear and there's got to be consequences for those who made mistakes. Whether one of the consequences is him leaving or not, that's something the president will have to decide. I think everything Steve is talking about is something that could go so against the grain of who President Trump is and how he carries himself. It's not -- I don't see him doing what Steve suggested.

KEILAR: Do you think he'll do it, Steve?


Here's why, Joe. Because he didn't make these mistakes. The president doesn't do background checks. Unfortunately, for him, Rob Porter was, by all appearances, a wonderful man. That's how he acted at work. He's a very polished Rhodes Scholar. He was highly respected on Capitol Hill, by Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator Mike Lee. And he had respect in the White House. It's an unfortunate reality in life there are people who can act in a professional setting really properly and impressively and then go home and act like a monster. That's the case you saw. It's not the president's fault at all. It's somebody lower level within the White House who didn't pass the FBI's information on properly. Let's find who the person or people are.


KEILAR: That's the latest story from the White House.

TRIPPE: And also, Steve, the president has had a few days now to do this, what you're suggesting, and there's nothing that he's in past instances he's doubled down or, you know, tweeted the wrong thing likes he's done on this. I don't see him doing it. I agree what he should do. I don't think it's going to happen.


KEILAR: I want to change the subject a little bit if we could. Trey Gowdy, and he's weighed in on this in terms of oversight on this. Another point on Trey Gowdy, who is controversial as a Republican because of his leadership on the Benghazi investigation, he's not running for re-election. And he gave a really interesting explanation. Here's what he said.


REP. TREY GOWDY, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think what matters in Congress is finding a group and then validating or ratifying what they already believe. The art of persuasion? In seven years I haven't seen anyone's mind changed by a speech, by a debate. It's about ratification and validation. I like it when facts matter. And I don't see that in our current modern political environment.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KEILAR: Joe, your reaction to that?

TRIPPI: You know, as much as I was upset with him during the Benghazi hearings, he's right. He's speaking exactly what happened to politics in Washington. And actually, that's something that's happening here, what you're seeing is people are getting exhausted by the hostility, division and how people are running to their aisle -- to their corners here in the city. It's -- people outside of Washington are really -- I call it chaos exhaustion. They are just exhausted by the chaos. They want it to stop. And current -- this Porter thing is just more of the chaos, more of something not going right.

KEILAR: Steve, what do you think. This is someone who really -- Trey Gowdy hasn't had a difficult time at all operating in the interest of his party. He really has been loyal, at many times, a stalwart in defending his party's interest and saying this.

CORTES: Right. Listen, I hate to see him go. So valuable on Capitol Hill. What he's describing is the swamp and Donald Trump was elected to drain the swamp. Washington exists for its own benefit, not just Capitol Hill, but the entire crony system that's been established in Washington, D.C. It's why five of the seven richest counties in America are in the Washington, D.C./Metro area. Think about that. It's not because Washingtonians are more creative or work harder than the rest of us, but because they created a system where our capitol acts like the capitol in "The Hunger Games." Trump has been sent to Washington to smash that. He's starting to do that. A lot more work to go. We need people -- if Trey Gowdy is not going to be on the Hill, we need people like him to get elected.

[11:39:09] KEILAR: We're not as creative fashion-wise, I will say that, Steve, as in "The Hunger Games."

Steve Cortes and Joe Trippe, thank you so much to both of you. Appreciate it.

Up next, Defense Secretary James Mattis can't seem to understand how several Russians were killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria that killed more than 100 men. Why? Because Russia told the U.S. they had no forces there. What is going on?


KEILAR: New details on U.S. airstrikes in Syria that killed more than 100 fighters, many of them Russians.

I want to bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, there's actually been two sets of U.S. airstrikes when the so-called pro- regime, pro-Assad troops moved against positions where U.S. troops were located with their partner forces.

I want you to check out this video. This is from the first encounter, the major encounter when U.S. war planes struck back in self-defense, they say, at these T-72 tanks and artillery pieces. And in the artillery strikes, you can actually see figures moving on the ground trying to run away. Whoever these people were, and it's widely believed some were Russian mercenaries, they began moving and firing against U.S. positions in southeastern Syria. The U.S. acting in self-defense.

So the big question is, why are they doing this? The Russians have acknowledged there may be Russian citizens in this part of Syria, although not Russian regular forces. They are supporting the Assad regime. And they are beginning to squeeze up against the positions where the U.S. troops are. So the Pentagon forced to take action, they say, in self-defense, to protect themselves and protect U.S. troops in this area and some of the rebel fighters that the U.S. is supporting.

It's an unsettling move because Defense Secretary Mattis still says days later he cannot figure out the motivation, why these pro-regime, potentially, Russian mercenaries moved against the U.S. Over 100 fighters killed in that first round of strikes. All indications are some were, indeed, Russians -- Brianna?

[11:45:40] KEILAR: Wow.

Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

We are standing by now at the White House right now. President Trump is holding a meeting with members of Congress on infrastructure. We expect to hear the president talk about that. But is he going to address the Rob Porter scandal and his embattled chief of staff? Stay with us.


[11:50:24] KEILAR: The Rob Porter scandal has exposed another major issue with the Trump administration. CNN learning Porter was among up to 40 people in the White House working without a permanent security clearance. That has raised concerns with the direct of National Intelligence. Dan Coats telling lawmakers he's worried White House staffers without full security clearances are getting classified information.


DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think sometimes it is necessary to have some type of preliminary clearance in order to fill a slot, but I have publicly stated, if that is the case, the access has to be limited in terms of the kind of information they can be in a position to receive or not receive. So I think that's something that we have to do as a part of our security clearance review. The process is broken. It needs to be reformed.


KEILAR: Joining me now to talk about this, CNN legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa. She's also a former special agent at the FBI. And also with us, CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd.

Asha, one of the main concerns, and you heard it there from Dan Coats, with so many people at the White House still operating on these temporary clearances. They're not supposed to be privy to the most sensitive of classified information until they get their permanent clearance. Do you think that some people may have access to sensitive information they should not?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I'm sure they do. Interim clearances are given when you're still waiting for a background check to be completed. But it sounds like, in this case, the FBI has completed its checks and has provided the relevant derogatory information, which means anything that's a red flag, to the White House a long time ago. Brianna, we had a saying in the FBI that character is what you do when you think no one is looking.

And the whole point of the background check process is to find things that might affect someone's integrity or judgment or trustworthiness. And what we see now is that there are a lot of people who apparently have some things holding up their clearances, and the White House isn't really on top of it or taking it seriously or trying to figure out what's going on. And I think that's actually a big problem because they're not limiting the information that they have access to.

KEILAR: Sam, you handled a lot of classified information when you were on the National Security Council under the Obama administration. Are there generally safeguards in place to stop people who only have a temporary clearance, maybe -- well, supposed to be when they first start working there -- from accessing ultra-sensitive, classified information?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, typically -- the short answer is yes. I feel the need to say this just because the White House is putting out so much misinformation on this. This is not normal. Interim clearance, as Asha pointed out, are for a short period of time while an investigation concludes. They're not supposed to be for 13 months. And when you have an interim clearance, typically, it goes up to the secret level, not to the top-secret level or compartmentalized level, like we know Jared Kushner, for example, has had. So I think that there's a major counterintelligence risk. The fact of the matter is that no one disagrees that Rob Porter, Jared Kushner, and others have red flags.

The fact of the matter is that the investigation was concluded. We know this from testimony yesterday. And the White House chose to knowingly disregard the advice of the intelligence community, yet again. I worked for two presidents. I had clearances under two presidents. I have never heard of the White House saying to the intelligence community, OK, we don't take your advice. We don't believe you when you say this person is a counterintelligence risk. I think it follows a pattern, frankly, of the White House listening to the intelligence community when it fits their political or personal interests, like with the Nunes memo, and disregarding the intelligence community's advice when it comes to topic they're uncomfortable with, like the Russia investigation, or in this case, the counterintelligence risk posed by Rob Porter. KEILAR: I want to ask about Russian meddling in the election. It was

such a big topic yesterday on Capitol Hill.

And, Sam, you point out in your column on that DNI Coats indicated there's no single agency in charge of coordinating efforts when it comes to looking at Russian meddling in the election, trying to stop it from happening again. Why is that such a significant lapse?

VINOGRAD: Well, it's just really disappointing because there is a body, the National Security Council -- and I served on it for four years -- whose responsibility and mission it is to coordinate inner agency policy on a range of issues. What that means is there are several agencies -- the FBI, Homeland Security, CIA, State Department -- that provide input to the policymaking process, whether it's intelligence or diplomatic expertise. The National Security Council, under H.R. McMaster, should be taking those inputs and making policy recommendations to the president, at which point the president weighs in on those options and makes the decision. We have reporting there hasn't been a cabinet level meeting on Russia yet. That's really dangerous.

[11:55:28] KEILAR: And, Asha, really quickly, we have 30 seconds, but I know there's legal constraints that concern you here.

RANGAPPA: Yes, these agencies can, as Sam said, collect intelligence, engage in counterintelligence, but in order to implement policy, that has to come from the top. By law, the president is the one who has to authorize any kind of proactive measures to counter Russia's election interference efforts.

KEILAR: All right. Asha Rangappa and Sam Vinograd, thank you so much to both of you.

Any minute now, President Trump will be talking to reporters after a meeting with members of Congress. Will he address the Rob Porter scandal? Stay with us.


JOHN KING, CNN HOST: I'm John King, in Washington.

I want to take you straight to the White House. President Trump meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to talk infrastructure.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- very hard. And we've really accomplished a lot.

We're here today to discuss the urgent need to rebuild and restore America's depleted infrastructure. We've been having meetings with different members of Congress. They've been very successful meetings. We'll see how it all turns out. This is a priority that is shared by members of both parties, and most importantly it's shared with the American people and by the American people.

To begin the conversation on the issue, I have laid out the principles on the biggest and boldest infrastructure initiative in at least a half a century. This framework will lead to a $1.5 trillion investment in American infrastructure, a faster permitting process that takes two years instead of 10 years, and maybe less. We're looking to get it down to one year, if possible, because when the money goes out, we want them to be able to spend the money, not wait around for many, many years while they get their permits. And $50 billion for rural infrastructure, including broadband Internet access. Rural communities have not been treated fairly. So we're going to spend $50 billion on rural infrastructure and Internet access, which is so important.