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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Senior Trump Aide Resigns in Wake of Domestic Abuse Accusations; Senate Reaches Major Budget Deal, Fate in House Unclear; Interview with Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 07, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Breaking news now on THE LEAD.

A major player at the White House is out over spousal abuse allegations.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The White House staff secretary now resigning after his first ex-wife claims he choked her, punched her and emotionally wrecked her, and his second ex-wife has abuse allegations of her own. Both women saying they told the FBI about the attack. So why did the White House hire him? And why did they try to keep him from resigning today?

With Washington running out of money and time, the Senate reaches a deal, this time a long-term deal to keep the government open, but one that leaves both House and House Republicans with a tough choice to make.

Plus, sister act. In a historic move, Kim Jong-un sends his little sis south to the Winter Games. Could she come face to face with Vice President Mike Pence?

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

There are basic lines of human decency, norms to which society generally agrees and to which we adhere, and we continue to see the Trump presidency eroding these lines.

Some of the people marching alongside Nazis and the Klan in Charlottesville were "very fine people," President Trump said, as he drew a line of moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who protested the white supremacists.

Days after, one of those Nazis drove purposefully into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer. Or last fall after U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore was credibly accused by women of having sexually abused them when they were in high school. One of the victims as young as 14. Republicans withdrew their support for Roy Moore, except for President Trump, who doubled down.

To this list of those marching alongside Nazis and those accused of sexually abusing children, the White House has now added someone accused by two ex-wives of spousal abuse.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports that White House officials have been generally aware of the accusations that White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter has beaten his ex-wives. Today, the White House is still standing by Porter, attesting to his character and his excellence.

Before we begin today's report, I just wanted to once again note a further erosion of standards for what I thought we had all agreed was not OK, not acceptable, not moral. White supremacist rallies, child molesters, domestic abusers.

Another moment where the White House is sadly no longer considered a place of the highest standards in the land, but rather a place where our national standards are being degraded.

This afternoon, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned, over the objections of the White House. Following reports of spousal abuse, claims by two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, who told CNN's M.J. Lee that Porter abused them while they were married to him.

One of those ex-wives has photographic evidence she says proves her claim, a black eye. Both of these women shared their claims in interviews with the FBI during Porter's background check investigation.

Minutes ago, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders continued to stand by Porter saying that President Trump has "full confidence" in his abilities and performance. Earlier, Sanders said Porter was not pressured to resign. In fact, far from it.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, I think that was a personal decision that Rob made and one that he was not pressured to do, but one that he made on his own.


TAPPER: Porter in a statement today called the chargers against him by his two ex-wives false and vile, but he did not explain how his wife got the black eye or why two ex-wives are accusing him of abusing them.

The reports first appeared in "The Daily Mail" and The Intercept.

Let's begin with CNN's M.J. Lee with more on what Porter has been accused of.

These are serious allegations.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, these are very disturbing allegations against a senior aide to President Trump, Rob Porter, an Oval Office presence, and thought to be in the rise in the Trump administration, abruptly resigning today after two of his ex- wives accused him of years of domestic abuse. CNN interviewed both ex-wives today. And let me just walk you through

what they told me.

The first ex-wife, Colbie Holderness, married Porter in 2003. She tells me there was constant emotional and verbal abuse and that the physical abuse began almost immediately after their wedding. During their honeymoon in 2003, Holderness said that Porter kicked her thigh during a fight and for years she said he choked her and would throw her on the bed, put his body weight on her, yell and grind his elbow or knee into her body.

Then, in the summer of 2005, Holderness says the couple was in Florence and that Porter punched her in the face. She shared photos from that alleged incidence with CNN. You can see the bruise on her face.


She said this was the only time where she can remember Porter actually leaving a physical mark on her body. And Porter has denied these accusations, which we will get into a little bit later.

Now, Jennifer Willoughby, this is the second ex-wife, who married Porter in 2009 -- 2009, rather -- told CNN that she also endured deep emotional abuse from her ex-husband. There was an incident in 2010, for example, when Willoughby said Porter punched a glass surface on their front door and eventually the police got involved and she said the police encouraged her to take out a protective order against him.

And CNN has obtained and reviewed a copy of that order. Then in December of 2010, Wilson said that and Porter had a fight and she went to take a shower. She tells me that he grabbed her from the shower by her shoulder, making her feel very frightened.

TAPPER: So Porter is resigning, but he had a statement about these accusations. And the White House seems to be defending him?

LEE: That's right.

Well, first of all, Porter says these allegations are simply false.

Here's the statement that he released earlier today -- quote -- "These outrageous allegations are simply false. I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago. And the reality behind them is nowhere close as to what's being described. I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims. But I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign."

Now, I should note, Jake, that Holderness acknowledge that it was in fact Porter who took these photos of her bruised face. She said she made her take the photos in contrition, but she says she absolutely stands by her allegations.

In terms of the fallout at the White House right now, we are told that Porter resigned over the objections of White House Chief of Staff Kelly. Kelly said in a statement that Porter is -- quote -- "a man of true

integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him."

And two things worth keeping in mind, Jake, too, as we learn more about this story, is that, one, Porter is a top aide inside the White House who had consistent contact with President Trump himself. And, two, we are told by several sources that Porter has been dating White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, one of the most influential aides in the West Wing.

TAPPER: You're told about the ex-wives speaking to the FBI.

LEE: That's right. Both of the ex-wives actually tell me that they were interviewed by the FBI regarding Porter's security clearance and bother Holderness and Willoughby tell me that they were honest with the FBI when they were being interviewed about their troubled marriages to Porter and basically shared with them, shared with the FBI details of the abuses that they say they suffered from Porter.

And notably, Jake, the source tells my colleague Jim Acosta that Porter ran into trouble obtaining a security clearance because one of his ex-wives raised the issue of domestic violence with the investigators.

TAPPER: Just to underline this , that means the White House knew about this because the FBI interviewed the ex-wives on behalf of Porter, on behalf of the White House.

LEE: You would assume so. We don't know right now to what extent, but you can safely assume I think that the White House would have been aware of these issues having been raised with the FBI.

TAPPER: All right, M.J. Lee also wrote about this on And there is another woman also with allegations of her own.

M.J., thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Let's dive into this with the panel.

First of all, let me just start with Chief of Staff John Kelly's statement to "The Daily Mail" when they broke the story yesterday.

"Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him. I am proud to serve alongside him."

No, he's not.


I think what strikes me that is so really awful, Jake, is that we are in the MeToo movement, where we're supposed to believe the women. It seems as if the Trump administration has not caught up to the movement that we're in.

And it's incredibly troubling, because we're talking about the White House. We're talking about the president of the United States. Look, I worked in the White House. The job that Porter has is

incredibly important. While it is not well known, it's incredibly important, because...

TAPPER: Explain to people what a staff secretary is.

JEAN-PIERRE: Because basically what they do is they spend -- the staff secretary makes sure that everything that comes in front of the desk of the president, they manage kind of who comes in and out, the memos.

All of those things is the staff secretary's job. So they spend hours and hours with the president on a regular basis. And it is safe to assume that White House did know, if the FBI did a background check on him, if they spoke to the wives.

Then that means the White House knew about this and still gave him this very important position.

TAPPER: It's interesting, Susan, because you and I have been in this town for a while and we know people that apply to get in jobs in the White House and we hear about them going through the background check.

Did they smoke a joint in college and do they do this? Anything can come back to haunt you. And anything until this administration really could block you. But apparently the FBI knew and the White House knew about these charges.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": But according to the reporting that we have seen done, he did not get a security clearance.

And it is interesting that he was able to continue to do this job without a security clearance, because of course I'm sure he was handling -- a lot of the material that goes to the president is of course classified. So, that's interesting.


But he, of course, Rob Porter denies the allegations. But what surprises me about the White House says is not that they -- is that they accept them and not the women, as opposed to saying, we don't know what the story is, we think is a serious issue, which is where Senator Hatch, a former employer of Rob Porter, ended up saying, after putting out a very positive statement.

He came back and put down one that walked back a bit and said we take these issues seriously. This should be looked at.

That would be a justifiable position for the White House to say. We don't know what happened. We think it is important to look at it. But instead they went all in on the side of Rob Porter.

TAPPER: And in fact said that he resigned over the objections of John Kelly and others. So, Kristen, let me ask you, because Susan just brought up Senator

Orrin Hatch. And his original statement attacked the media for reporting these accusations, and seemed to attack the ex-wives.

It said -- quote -- "It is incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man. Shame on any publication that would print this and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man's good name."

Now, he has amended. And I will, in the interest of fairness, read. He wrote: "I'm heartbroken by today's allegations." This is today. "I do not know the details of his personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent."

But I am perplexed by the first statement. Why issue that first statement?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I am very glad that the senator amended his position and issued the second statement, because in the case of the first statement, what you're seeing is someone who doesn't know the details of someone's private life, who has maybe only interacted with them in a professional setting, thinks highly of the job they have done in that professional setting, and feels an instinct to defend someone they know and love.

But I think Susan in right, in this moment, a minimum standard should be to say, let's all take a breath and actually investigate this, rather than attacking someone who has made these allegations. That's the sort of progress that theoretically we should be making in this MeToo era.

It doesn't necessarily mean anyone who makes allegations is instantaneously believed 100 percent and the guy is always guilty, but that we should be in the business of taking a breath and taking things seriously.

TAPPER: Absolutely.

Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

We have breaking news on Capitol Hill, drama on the House floor. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been speaking for hours. But will her day of protest get any results?

We will go live to Capitol Hill next. Stay with us.


[16:26:27] TAPPER: Welcome back.

It's a rare bipartisan breakthrough. Senate leaders have announced a major two-year budget agreement. A deal that would significantly increase federal spending by about $300 billion over those two years and it could also stave off those short-term funding bills and threats of government shutdowns. But the fate of the deal in the House remains unclear. The huge

increase in spending leads some conservatives worried. Plus, the deal leaves out any fix to immigration and the fate of the Dreamers, a point that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been raising on the House floor. She's been speaking now for more than six hours. She's been reading stories of Dreamers.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill.

Phil, tell us more about the details of the Senate budget deal.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, it's enormously consequential. There's no question about it. If this gets through, if it gets signed into law, it's a huge deal, not just for what's in it but also for what it pushes aside.

In other words, the self imposed crisis we've been dealing with on spending for what seems like years. Now, the details of what this is, more than $300 billion in spending increases over the next two years, about $160 billion for defense, about $130 billion for nondefense domestic spending, defense being a Republican priority, nondefense being the Democratic priority, funding a lot of major programs that they care about.

But there's more to this as well. It also takes the debt ceiling crisis that everybody seems to deal with once or twice a year off the table until March of 2019. Also, more than $80 billion in disaster funding for states like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, those states ravaged by the hurricanes. There is also health care spending as well. Two years, $7 billion for community health centers. Also an extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program from not just six years but ten years as well.

So, the details of this, there are a lot of thing for both parties to grab on to and call victories. There's still a lot of work to do to actually get it across the finish line.

TAPPER: And yet, there are a lot of concerns about how this might be received in the House of Representatives. Tell us about the roadblocks there.

MATTINGLY: Well, look, there's a good reason. We have Nancy Pelosi has been on the floor for now more than six hours. Their primary issue, even though on the nondefense domestic side, it funds a lot of their crucial priorities, is the fact that there's no clear resolution to DACA right now. They don't have the similar structure as they'd have in the Senate where the Senate is going to take up an immigration proposal or an immigration debate next week. They haven't gotten a guarantee on that yet in the House. And because of that, Democrats who are basically holding the defense spending Republicans wanted so dearly more or less hostage in order to try to get a DACA resolution are very frustrated right now.

And then you have the Republicans as well. Basically, look, leadership aides on both sides knew that they were going in with their eyes wide open. You were going to lose Republicans on the far left and you were going to lose Democrats on the far right.

On the far right, people like the House Freedom Caucus, very concerned about the lack of fiscal restraint. The major increases in spending, even though they support the defense spending, $300 billion plus another $70 billion, $80 billion across the board. That's a lot of money.

I think the real question right now, Jake, is can leaders find the sweet spot? Get enough Republican that are very supportive of the deal, particularly because of the defense spending side and the disaster relief to pair with Democrats who are very happy about the nondefense domestic spending and get it across the finish line. I'm told right now, while they don't have firm vote counts, they feel good about where things are going.

But there's no question about it, just take a look at the House floor. It's going to be a lot of people who are voicing a lot of concerns, even some outrage over the course of the next 24 hours. The question is, when will they get it across the finish line when they lock in those votes, Jake?

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

Joining me to talk about this is Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina. He's a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman, good to see you as always.


TAPPER: Has the Republican Party stopped caring about deficits and the national debt?

SANFORD: I don't think so. I mean, I think that you're going to probably hear a vigorous debate in the House as this bill moves forward as to what comes next.

[16:20:00] It's not just the $300 billion in terms of breaking it into caps. It was correctly pointed out, it's an additional $80 billion on top of that when you include the emergency supplemental. So, we're really talking about, you know, roughly $400 billion, $100 billion of which is offset. The other $300 billion of which is not.

And so, I think we're going to have a rigorous debate on deficits and what comes next. It's not the just that though. I'd also add in this idea of increasing the debt ceiling to a day certain rather than an amount certain, another question mark for conservatives.

TAPPER: But don't you think we're going to get to a point in the midterm elections, let's say, let's put that as the end date, where you'll be able to look back on the previous two years of the Republican control of the White House, the House and the Senate, and see, boy, we've really run up the deficit and the debt? We haven't done anything to bring it down. SANFORD: Well, if so, I think there will be a political price to pay,

because I think ultimately, you know, it's a big strategic threat, what comes next on the national debt front. It was Admiral Mike Mullen who observed that this is ultimately the biggest threat to the American way of life.

It's always a threat to people's pocket books. We saw the volatility of the markets of late. I think that that's an indicator of people are getting a little queasy on what comes next on interest rates and a whole lot more. But I -- so, I think that yes, it's a problem right now. It's a problem that Republicans are going to get their arms around. We're not yet there.

TAPPER: Well, I mean, with all due respect, I've known you for a long time, and you've been a fiscal a hawk for a long, long time. Other than the House Freedom Caucus, I don't really see a lot of Republicans talking about this.

I mean, I really don't see -- I mean, the tax bill is going to increase the deficit. They're now talking about a budget feel that's going to increase the deficit. I know you're a kind man and you don't like the say bad things about other people, but isn't it just obvious that most Republicans don't actually care about this the way you do?

SANFORD: What I would say is, both political bodies on the House and Senate side are a reflection of what people are talking about back home. And to be honest, not enough people are talking about debt deficit spending back home. It is the three monkeys routine in Washington, D.C. as it relates to debt, deficit and government spending. I hear no evil, I speak no evil, I see no evil on those three topics.

It will require presidential leadership at the end of the day if you're going to do something about spending and I think that the bodies will respond to that. So, I cede the point that it's not a point of focus. I think it's a real problem and myself and the likes of Mark Meadows or Jim Jordan and others are going to be pushing on this point of saying, wait a minute, we've got a profound spending problem and if at the end of the day, Republicans own the tab on the way that's increased, I think it's a political problem as well.

TAPPER: So, you voted against yesterday's House version which ultimately passed. You said you were concerned about the increased spending, which is included in the Senate version. Are you going to oppose this deal even if it means risking a government shutdown?

SANFORD: Again, I'll look at it in its entirety. Our staff is reviewing it right now. I'd say that's my bias given how I voted yesterday and given how I voted on the defense approps bill that came before that.

TAPPER: Take a listen to Defense Secretary James Mattis and what he had to say about the deal this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We need Congress to lift the defense spending caps and support a two-year budget agreement for our military. America can afford survival. Today's congressional action will ensure our military can defend our way of life, preserve the promise of prosperity, and pass on the freedoms you and I enjoy to the next generation.


TAPPER: House Speaker Paul Ryan also said, quote, the winners tray the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. How do you respond to that cry? That people like you and the Freedom Caucus and others who oppose this deal, or oppose raising the caps and spending more, are the hurting the men and women in uniform?

SANFORD: I would say in fair tons any number of defense hawks who believe it to the core and they've been vociferous and they've been forceful and they've been passionate about trying to advance this point of view. And I defer to Mattis in terms of being a great military leader.

But what I would say is this. The ultimate driver of security in the grandest sense of the word is that economic supremacy is the precursor to military supremacy.

And again, take another military person, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His point was the greatest threat to the American civilization was not the Chinese or the Taliban but ultimately the American debt. And I would say, again, I respect in the short term they're doing things to help our troops, but in the long term, we may be eroding our ultimate security if we can't get this spending under control.

TAPPER: Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina -- thank you so much. Good to see you, sir.

SANFORD: Yes, sir. A pleasure.

TAPPER: A new pushback on the president today who wants to see a military parade. A steady stream of voices who say such a show of force is unnecessary. Stay with us.


[16:29:10] TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead.

Mixed reactions from lawmakers today over President Trump's desire for a military parade. Initial plans are underway but some are worried what message President Trump is intending to send here. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying, quote, any other president, you would assume that it would be to honor our men and women in uniform and would be done in good taste. With this president, it's just worrisome as to what exactly he has in mind, unquote.

CNN's Barbara Starr has the story.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump saw this military parade in Paris and decided he wanted one of his own.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was one of the greatest parades I've ever seen. It was two hours on the button and it was military might. And I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France.

To a large extent because of what I witnessed, we may do something like that on July 4th in Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue.

STARR: The Pentagon and the White House have been talking about a parade for the last couple months.