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Trump's Trade War; Chaos Inside the White House; Kelly Defends Himself in Wake of Rob Porter Scandal; Senate Intel to Hold Security Clearance Reform Hearing. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 2, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: They say blood is thicker than water, so Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, they have nothing to worry about. Right?

THE LEAD starts now.

A new report says President Trump is urging his chief of staff to show Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner the door, while telling them to their faces that he wants them to stick around. And this is not even the most troubling White House story of the week.

Now that Vladimir Putin is trotting out his brand-new nuclear missile that he says cannot be stopped, are we on the cusp of a brand-new arms race? In a new interview, the Russian leader says don't be silly, but adds, hey, you guys started it.

And who said democracy is broken? It took Georgia lawmakers just six days to take action against Delta Air Lines for severing ties with the NRA by removing a tax break for the airline. Still no word out of Washington, however, on when we will see legislation to make schools safer.

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

Chaos has been part of how Donald Trump ran his businesses. Chaos has been how he ran his campaign. And chaos has marked how he has run the country. But is there something worse about this week's maelstrom?

An ally of the president's tells CNN's Gloria Borger that this past week has been different and "Something is very wrong," that advisers are scared the president is spiraling, lashing out, out of control.

The chaos is not just about staffing or the president's intemperate tweets. It has had a real policy component this week, with the president's sudden announcement of tariffs on steel sending shockwaves not only among his staffers and administration, caught completely unprepared for the announcement, but frankly around the world.

The president actually tweeting today -- quote -- "Trade wars are good and easy to win."

This on top of the extremely mixed messages from the president about what needs to change in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. It is entirely possible, of course, some other shocking news will break this hour, and as we head into the dangerous waters of Friday evening, but, with that risk, let us take a moment now to try to unpack and understand this hot mess of a week.

There's already been one resignation announcement this week. And now it's been revealed two others are considering leaving. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster may be gone by the end of the month, according to an administration official, and there are new reports today that Gary Cohn, the president's top economic adviser, is on the brink of leaving as well, following the president's shall we call it hastily announced tariffs yesterday, which Cohn fought tooth and nail.

It was just Tuesday, of course, when we learned that Jared Kushner's interim security had been downgraded significantly from the high-level top-secret CSI -- I'm sorry -- SCI to the rather low-level secret, sparked by Chief of Staff John Kelly's new rules in the wake of the scandal surrounding former top aide Rob Porter, who had security clearance despite also being frankly quite blackmailable, what, with two ex-wives accusing him of domestic abuse.

Now, Kushner, according to a source, feels that everyone at the White House is out to get him, questioning, "Why is John Kelly doing this?"

But even White House staffers could not believe the security and ethical questions raised in a "New York Times" story this week surrounding Kushner meeting as a top White House official with the CEOs of two companies amidst those companies lending hundreds of millions of dollars to Kushner businesses he owns a stake in.

And that's just Jared.

As for his wife, Ivanka Trump, sources telling CNN that U.S. counterintelligence officials are investigating one of her international business deals. Now, "The Times" reports that the president has privately said that Jared and Ivanka should have never come to the White House in the first place, and they should leave, even asking Chief of Staff Kelly for help in getting them to go.

But "The Times" also reports, when the president speaks directly to his daughter and son-in-law, he tells them they should stay.

All the while we have other stuff, the Russia investigation, the president fuming over his public spat with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and, of course, the latest ethical scandal plaguing his Cabinet members this week, HUD Secretary Ben Carson.

The TV version of the president can't even catch a break this week, with Mr. Trump lashing out on Twitter this morning at Alex Baldwin, before deleting it and correcting it to Alec, because of course it is important that the most powerful man in the world weigh in on the guy who portrays him on "SNL."

And don't forget, amidst all this, the president is about to lose Hope, Hope Hicks, that is, one of his closest confidants, a Trump whisperer. One friend of President Trump's told CNN that Hope Hicks' departure would send the president into a "tailspin," which, of course, prompts the question.

She hasn't even left yet. If this isn't a tailspin, what is it?

I want to bring in "New York Times" White House and CNN political analyst Maggie Haberman. She's been reporting and breaking news on all the chaos.


So, Maggie, we're hearing that this week does seem different, that the president is more isolated and angry than ever. Do you get a sense this is a new level or will we just be on to something else on Monday?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think both things are true. I think that we will be on to something else. But I do think this is a deeper level of chaos and unpredictability and frustration on the president's part.

On the staff part, a number of people have said to me that they feel like this is essentially mirroring the early days of the White House, when they first came in, in January of 2017 and in the beginning of February 2017, when they had the rollout of the travel ban, which was chaotic, and which was one side of the White House not talking to other sides of the White House and not everyone looped in, no process.

At least then, the excuse was they had just gotten there. This was a new band of people who had never really experienced the West Wing before or protocols and were unused to things.

They have had 13 months now. And so this is just the way things are. You have had a number of departures that have impacted things. I think one of the things you have seen most pointedly in terms of policy over the last two days is that the absence of Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned under pressure over spousal abuse allegations, he was playing essentially the main sort of policy facilitator role.

There's no one in that role right now. So what you saw this chaos in the lead-up to what the president said about tariffs, that was emblematic of how empty a lot of these chairs are inside.

TAPPER: And you reported today -- quote -- "Privately, some aides have expressed frustration that Mr. Kushner and his wife, the president's daughter Ivanka Trump, have remained at the White House despite Mr. Trump at times saying they never should have come to the White House and should leave. Yet aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out."

That's stunning.

HABERMAN: As you know, he can say different things on different people within the same half-hour and he will adamantly believe whatever he is saying at that moment or tell you that he does. Look, I think he is really conflicted when it comes to his daughter. I think with his daughter, on the one hand, I do think he is proud of her. I think that he talks about how he thinks that she has done well on the tax issue. He was very pleased with her work there.

He likes having her around. He believes that she is getting beaten up because of him. Jared Kushner, however, he has started to see as a liability. And, on the one hand, he has -- some people have said to me -- some sympathy for him.

But, on the other hand, this president doesn't ever like when other people's negative headlines make this president look bad. And that's how this president sees it, never mind the fact that it is all sort of -- or not all -- that much of it is part of a larger piece, which is this Russia probe.

The president feels like this all sort of splashes back on him and it is not really sustainable.

Now, that having been said, does that mean that they will imminently leave? My understanding is that they are signaling to people that they have no intention of going. We don't yet know what the security clearance issue is going to look like in terms of his ability to really do his job.

TAPPER: And then, of course, on top of all this is the departure of Hope Hicks.


TAPPER: And people close to the president tell me, and I'm sure you as well, that you cannot overstate the importance of Hope Hicks to the president's emotional well-being and being tethered.

HABERMAN: Correct.

Look, he is a comfort zone player. There are very few people who he trusts outside of his family. Home hicks was like family -- is like family to him. Her departure, to your point, she hasn't even left yet. We don't yet know what that is going to look like.

And there is another aspect of this too. It is not just the support that she provided the president in terms of just sort of a sounding board. She was also -- despite I know that she got a lot of criticism, she was actually one of the people who could try to deflect some of his dicier requests or things that he wanted to do.

She would push back on him. And she would also absorb a lot of the screaming, a lot of the venting, a lot of the anger that he would direct either at reporters or at other staffers. And she would not roll it back down hill.

Absent that kind of a filter, it is going to get uglier in an already pretty low morale workplace situation.

TAPPER: And is there any sense of anyone who could possibly even try to step into the role of steadying the president?

Frankly, no disrespect intended, it doesn't seem as though the chief of staff is doing it.

HABERMAN: Right. The chief of staff is not doing it. And the chief of staff has made clear that he thinks there are things that he can control and things he can't.

The knock on John Kelly right now is, in addition to how he handled the Rob Porter issue, the knock on Kelly is that the things he can control is staffing, and that there are a number of people who he has basically kept in their positions, people like Peter Navarro, who was promoted and is now involved in this trade policy that has become very controversial, or a trade possible policy that the president talked about in terms of tariffs.

There are a lot of people who thought their jobs would be imperiled. Instead of doing a broad-scale wipeout when John Kelly came in, he decided to take his time and wait and see who did what job.


And then he's just been sort of rocked by one controversy to another and has never really had time to go back at it. And so you just have this sort of untenable situation.

TAPPER: All right.

Maggie Haberman, thank you for your insight. Always great to have you on.

My panel is here.

What Chief of Staff John Kelly said to reporters himself today, creating even more of a controversy. That's next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead and my panel.

It's been a week rocked by chaos and infighting at the White House. Look at this web of conflicts at the White House and in the administration, the president himself embedded in many of them.

Let's talk about it with the panel.

Abby, you just were in a meeting with the chief of staff, John Kelly, talking to reporters about a number of issues. He said -- defending himself over the Porter scandal, the Rob Porter scandal, he said -- quote -- "I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over."

[16:15:00] He did say that the White House didn't cover ourselves in glory, in their response to the news. But then he also went on about how he was essentially blameless in the timeline. And he provided the timeline that doesn't line up with actual time.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't at all. And it was surprising to us to both see that he wanted to revisit this and also that he revisited it in a way that really defied everything that we had seen and heard over the last month. He said that the very same day that "The Daily Mail" came to the White House two allegations on two separate occasions, that Rob Porter he resigned and that the case was closed. He repeated something we saw reported, which is that he said that he within two hours, Porter was gone.

The truth is we know the very next day, the White House defended Porter in a press briefing room. They said Sarah Sanders went to the briefing room and she said Porter would be sticking around for a couple of weeks to provide a seamless transition. John Kelly's name was still on a statement defending Porter.

And we asked him about that, and his explanation was that it was a miscommunication and that he was writing a statement based on what he knew of Kelly's work product. But that he wasn't aware of, you know, how big this was going to blow up and that he had not fully communicated to the rest of the staff that Porter was indeed gone.

But at the same time, there's almost a 24-hour period before John Kelly release a new statement addressing domestic abuse, for example, and there was no real explanation for that and it really defies everything that we've learned so far. Rob Porter was -- according to Sarah Sanders, on the day after the photos were released, the day after John Kelly says he first learned about this, Rob Porter had the full confidence of the chief of staff and the president. That's what Sarah Sanders from the podium.

TAPPER: He called him a man of honor and integrity, and really amazing. This is obviously not what a White House chief of staff should be doing, creating more headlines and dredging up a scandal that is about three or four weeks old.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's right. Denis McDonough used to say, chief of staff is more about staff than it is chief. And you're about being the leader of the staff. And not just in this case but if you look at the pattern of the last couple days or weeks, there's also other examples, even the leak of the McMaster possibly leaving soon, the national security adviser.

All over those stories is that Kelly is for this and Kelly has disagreements with him that makes Kelly look a little bit stronger. The Ivanka and Jared story that Maggie Haberman reported, that also has Kelly in a position of power. So, this to me having been in the White House and working a lot with reporters looks to me like it's Kelly managing Kelly's PR and Kelly's press, regardless of how it looks for the White House or the president or anyone else involved. He is protecting his own tail and nobody else's.

TAPPER: What do you make of it all?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, WASHINGTON EXAMINER COLUMNIST: Well, this is an important shift from when Kelly first came in as chief of staff, following the kind of the Reince Priebus era, where it had been a tumultuous first couple of months of the administration, where there had been lots of sort of public airing of all of these different factions within the White House and the idea was that you bring in someone like General Kelly who would stop all that, who wouldn't have a faction. His faction was the president and the American people.

And to the extent that that has disintegrated, and to the extent that things like for instance, the president's long held views on trade that he's been counseled away from those by enough advisers, that, all of a sudden, those guardrails are gone. That does concern me a great deal.

PHILLIP: And I think very much, one of the things that Maggie -- you were talking to Maggie about is the expense there is at least as much chaos now in the White House as there was prior to when John Kelly got there. That there was a belief at least at the beginning that some of this had to do with fact that Reince Priebus was a weak chief of staff, that he couldn't adequately leave the building.

But we know today that there's still a lot of turnover happening. There's still a lot of chaos, there's a lot of policy chaos. And that hasn't totally abated. It's not clear exactly what the solution is.

Maggie's theory is that this is the way it is. This is not a bug. It's a feature.

TAPPER: Yes, I don't think you can blame on it John Kelly. It's ultimately President Trump.

But just to recap, talking about the chaos, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn has threatened to resign over the tariff decision. Chief of Staff John Kelly joked that god was punishing him by making him work at the White House. He also gave this briefing today that is controversial to say the least.

Jared Kushner no longer has access to top secret information. The president may be trying to push him and his wife, who happens to be the president's daughter, out of the White House. His closest confidant perhaps, Hope Hicks, is leaving. National security adviser, H.R. McMaster, may also be on the way out the door.

This seems more chaotic than normal. And certainly, more chaotic, I think, possibly even more chaotic than the beginning of the Trump administration.

PSAKI: Yes. One, we're all waiting for the Jake Tapper cartoon where it is Donald Trump by himself in the White House.

TAPPER: It will never happen. There will always be people that were going to work with him.

PSAKI: Everyone is fired and he can't use the phone.

Look, I think it is not entirely John Kelly's fault, but part of chief of staff's job is to maintain stability among the staff.

[16:20:05] And we learned the hard way in the first term and you covered the White House. You remember this, when there were leaks of staff leaving or possible staff departures. That creates instability, even if it's one person. We're talking about one times ten here.

And by the second term, we had a general rule of thumb that seemed a little neurotic at the time but it's probably good strategy or good process that if somebody was leaving, you wanted their replacement to be announced. And the reason for that is because you don't want to send a message of instability externally and you don't want to send it internally. Everybody needs to focus on their job. They don't need to focus on who the next communications director is going to be, who the next national security adviser is going to be. That becomes the entire consuming focus of the White House.

TAPPER: And, Kristen, one of the things that's interesting in terms of the chaos is President Trump and guns, because he came out and staked out a position, especially during that meeting with bipartisan lawmakers in favor of positions that were anathema to the NRA. And then he met with the NRA and one of them tweeted that POTUS and VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don't want gun control, which is obviously pretty much the opposite of what the president said before the cameras.

ANDERSON: Which this whole controversy is not terribly surprising. Remember the Chuck and Nancy meetings over immigration. I mean, on issue after issue after issue, the president is fairly flexible and I think likes to say things to a room that he believes will get applause or a good response from that room, and then as the audience in the room changes, the response changes.

So, it doesn't surprise me. That doesn't strike me as a new form of chaos. That strikes me as the way this presidency has gone.

TAPPER: Just pointing it out, though.

Everyone, stick around. We've got lots more to talk about. We don't know if Ivanka Trump still has top security clearance. But if she does, could it be about to change?

Don't go anywhere. Stay with us.


[16:26:03] TAPPER: In our politics lead, Ivanka Trump's business dealings could be a problem for getting her full security clearance, sources telling CNN. Now, the Senate Intelligence Committee meeting will hold a hearing on the entire security clearance process, as a new CNN poll shows 70 percent of those Americans polled are concerned by the number of White House employees who have not yet received a permanent security clearance. Only 29 percent say they are not worried about it.

I want to bring in CNN's Sara Murray.

Sara, what do we know about Ivanka's business deal that's getting the scrutiny? SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know the U.S. counterintelligence is looking the Trump Hotel and Tower in Vancouver. Now, this is a deal where Ivanka Trump was a point person and it works like a lot of these Trump deals do where the Trump Organization has a licensing and marketing agreement, but they don't actually own the building.

In this case, the developer of the building is a member of one of the Malaysia's wealthiest families. And like many of these Trump properties, they attract a number of foreign buyers for the condo portion of it.

So, it's clear exactly why U.S. counterintelligence is interested in this deal. If it has to do with the foreign money involved or perhaps the timing. This is one of the few Trump properties, Trump branded properties that is open since he took office. It opened in February of 2017.

But one of the things that counterintelligence look for is, are there any vulnerabilities here? Is there any way that you could have been compromised by your contacts, by the financing behind this kind of things? That's standard in a security clearance application process. But, of course, we've seen concerns like this about Jared Kushner. We saw "The Washington Post" report earlier this week that said there were official from a number of foreign governments, including China who were talking about ways that Jared Kushner could be compromised because of his various financial entanglements.

So that could potentially be an issue for Ivanka Trump, too. We just don't have a good sense of it.

Now, a representative for her ethics council put out a statement saying this: CNN is wrong that any hurdle, obstacle, concern, red flag or problem has been raised with respect to Ms. Trump or her clearance application. Nothing in the new White House policy has changed Ms. Trump's ability to do the same work she has been doing since she joined the administration.

And if the second part of that statement looks familiar, it's because they said something very similar when we found out that Jared Kushner's interim security clearance had been downgraded to just secret. We know that Ivanka Trump had also been operating on an interim security clearance, and if she has managed to all of a sudden get a top secret clearance, no one in her orbit is saying.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

It could make the U.S. defense system, quote, useless. That's the claim Russian President Vladimir Putin is making at least. But wait until you hear President Trump's reaction.

Be right back.