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Spicer Wraps Up Press Briefing; Trump Denies Gorsuch Criticism, Despite Actual Criticism; WH: Conway "Counseled" for Promoting Ivanka's Clothing Line on TV. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired February 09, 2017 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Then the president, who seems totally unable to with stand any criticism, even criticism choreographed, an orchestrated strategy --



CHALIAN: -- of the White House to help his nominee get on, he can't deal with that and he tweets out that the characterization is now wrong. So, it sends Kellyanne, in that statement, and Sean Spicer, from that podium, trying to find a justification and somehow find a way that the president's tweets were mischaracterized and everything we're hearing from the Hill and confirmed from the White House that those two things can coexist. They can't. And that was the impossible task --


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And shortly after Senator Blumenthal said what he said, Ron Bonjean, a highly respected conservative Republican spokesman, asked by the White House to help be the spokesman for Judge Gorsuch, he confirmed exactly what Senator Blumenthal said.

CHALIAN: And the context.



And if I might add to your description, which was spot on. The other thing he did wasn't just saying no, no, no, it was going for the jugular, the ad hominin attack on Senator Blumenthal, going back to -- it was a mistake during the campaign, saying it was a big mistake, that he served in Vietnam at a time that he didn't, big mistake. But that's not the point. That's not the point. He's going for the jugular just like he did successfully during the campaign, but he's not a candidate, he's the president of the United States.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta is over there at the White House briefing, our viewer inside.

Jim, it's an awkward position for the White House press secretary to try to defend the president on an issue like this. JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Right. I

think you saw Sean Spicer engage in some verbal gymnastics, not sure he hit the landing during this breifing, Wolf. You heard during this briefing Sean Spicer say Judge Gorsuch was clear he was not commenting on any specific matter, that he was asked about his general philosophy.

Wolf, as Dana and David were just saying, it doesn't line up with the facts and it doesn't line up with Senator Blumenthal, it doesn't line up with what the White House told us yesterday in terms of what Judge Gorsuch was saying in the behind-closed-doors meeting with Senator Blumenthal. So, what you have is the White House press secretary trying to put the best face on an unflattering situation, and that is that the president's own Supreme Court pick is criticizing the president just days after being tapped for the highest court in the land.

And beyond that, Wolf, there was another interesting moment where you saw some of the prickliness displayed by this White House. Spicer saying he was frustrated by the fact that President Obama, when he criticized the Supreme Court over the Citizens United decision, that there wasn't this huge hue and cry in Washington. Actually, there was a lot of controversy about that. I remember when Justice Alito sort of mouthed, "That's wrong." We all covered that extensively.

But at the same time, Wolf, the context of what President Obama was saying during the State of the Union speech versus what President Trump has been tweeting and saying about these justices and judges handling the executive order case, you're talking about apples and oranges big time. The president, President Trump, tweeted and suggested that if there's a terrorist attack it's going to be the responsibility of the judge who slapped a temporary restraining order on this executive order. That goes way beyond what President Obama said when he was criticizing the Citizens United case. So, these are very different circumstances.

But you heard in the briefing room, the press secretary expressing the frustration of this White House that president is being called to account for his comments on the judiciary and the fact that Judge Gorsuch was plain spoken, it sounds like, in any of these meetings behind closed doors.

The other interesting thing that came out of this briefing, Wolf, was that Sean Spicer acknowledged that Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, was, quote, "counselled" after this morning being on FOX News and pitching Ivanka Trump's clothing line. It sounded like a quip from Kellyanne Conway but, at the same time, you can't have a government official, paid by the taxpayers, pitching the beautify products of the daughter of the president of the United States. That obviously crosses the line. You heard Sean Spicer say she was being counselled. But he didn't go beyond that as to what kind of consequences were instore for Kellyanne Conway -- Wolf?

BLITZER: He only said she was counselled and didn't explain whatever any punishment she would be getting.

So, I want to leave it at that.

And the rules specifically state this, "Using public office for their own private gain, for the private gain of friends, relatives or persons with whom they are affiliated in non-government capacity, endorsing any product, service or company, misusing government property or official time," all against the rules. And that explains why Sean Spicer says Kellyanne Conway, the senior advisor to the president, quote, "has been quote counselled."

I want to play the clip. Listen to what Sean Spicer said about this uproar involving Judge Gorsuch.


[14:35:20] SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is what Senator Ayotte said, "Judge Gorsuch made it very clear in all of his discussions with Senators, including Senator Blumenthal, that he could not comment on specific cases and that judicial ethics prevented him from commenting on political matters. He has also emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary. While he made clear he was not referencing any specific case, he said that he finds any criticism of a judge's integrity and independence disheartening and demoralizing."

So, there's a big difference between commenting on the specific comments made in the tweet and his general philosophy about the judiciary and his respect for his fellow judges. I think the Senator's comments were very clear about how those are two distinct issues.

When Senator Blumenthal characterized him, he was talking about the tweets, that's not what the judge said. He was making two very completely distinct arguments how about he views the comments, that he should not be commenting on a political matter or on specific things, but as a whole, he doesn't like attacks in general on the judiciary. It was a very distinct argument that he was making. He was commenting in general about attacks on the judiciary. That was it, plain and simple.


BLITZER: I want to bring in Rick Santorum, former Senator, also a CNN political commentator.


He's going through all these contortions. You've got Senator Blumenthal, Senator Schumer --


-- you know Ron Bonjean, a highly-respected P.R. guy, political guy here in Washington. So, give us your analysis.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The problem is that the specific doesn't contradict the general. That's the problem. That the specific case that you're talking about, what Trump said, is in line with the general criticism of the judiciary. So, if Trump was not saying that, you could say the general had nothing to do with the specific, but the specific is consistent with the general. So of course, he's commenting on that because he's commenting on all comments in that regard, and that one fits. So, you can't differentiate when there isn't anything to really differentiate. I would make the argument that, all in all, this has been not a particularly good thing for the White House. It's been a good thing for Neil Gorsuch. And to me, that's the bigger deal at this point, because he's now stood up, said what he believes, he took the heat, he's continued to say it. I think he will continue to say it, because I think that's what he believes, and he's shown he's going to be an independent judge.


BLITZER: Do you think it was smart for the White House press secretary to perform like this, to go through these contortions and try to defend the president under these extraordinary circumstances?

SANTORUM: I think we're going to see extraordinary circumstances become ordinary circumstances. I think we're seeing that. Look, Donald Trump is a completely different animal. And we're having all sorts of problems because you're trying to fit him into a box that just isn't here anymore, and so we're going to see things we have never seen before. And we have to wait and see how that works out. It is disruptive, but he likes disruption. It is chaotic but he manages chaos well. So, all these are very unsettling, particular seeing a president do these things. But this is how he functions, and he functions well -- well, maybe not efficiently.


But he functions well under those circumstances. So we're going to have this conversation over and over again. And the question is what's happening? He's probably going to get his judge confirmed. Not that he wasn't necessarily, but much better chance now. You have to walk through each case and say, how does he do it, because he's breaking all the rules, and yet, things are going OK.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Could I give you an example where you could reasonably argue that doing business doesn't function well. It's a subject not brought up yet, which Reuters reports today, on a call with President Putin, Donald Trump talked down a U.S. missile treaty with Russia. So, it's a treaty negotiated by the United States of America --


SANTORUM: Which I oppose, so I don't like it either.

SCIUTTO: Well, on the call, he said it was a bad deal.

SANTORUM: It was a bad deal. SCIUTTO: But to have - look - look you're a Senator with great

experience in foreign affairs. To have a U.S. president talk with a foreign power and say a deal negotiated by my country was a bad deal, is that the way to communicate about an issue of national security?

[13:39:46] SANTORUM: Yes, if what you're saying is you pulled one over on us, you got a much better deal than we did, and we gave up way too much, you need to come back our way. So, it's absolutely appropriate.

SCIUTTO: If that was the characterization of the call, which Sean Spicer was asked about and he just said it was a private conversation.


SANTORUM: If I was president, that's exactly what I would have said to Vladimir Putin. Absolutely.


BLITZER: Let's bring in Angela Rye, our CNN political commentator, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

You listened very carefully to all of what Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, had to say, trying to come up with this explanation. What was your reaction?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITCAL COMMENTATOR: So many, Wolf. It was hard to even follow. Most interestingly is this comment about Senator Ayotte, trying to distance her remarks from what actually happened, from this tweet. Furthermore, the comparison to Donald Trump's remarks to President Obama's criticism of the judiciary, which is like night and day, to Jim Acosta's point earlier. He said with all due deference to the separation of powers in a State of the Union address, referencing the Citizens United decision in 2010, which is completely different from even a high school student, a bad high school student at that, could understand why this ban is necessary. So, I think it's, again, night and day.

I think one other thing that really stood out to me is what happened with Kellyanne Conway. We see yet again how Donald Trump can do things on his twitter account in other places, like in TV interviews, pretty much violating at least the optics of the letter of the law and conflict-of-interest policies for federal government employees. Those same rules don't apply to his team and Kellyanne Conway is going to quickly learn, whether from the Office of Government Ethics or from the counseling session, that rules don't apply to the president, but do apply to her.

BLITZER: I'll play the clip, Angela. Here is the White House speaking about Kellyanne Conway's comments on FOX.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Kellyanne Conway did an interview I believe with FOX News this morning, appeared to from the briefing room promote the product of Ivanka Trump. Do you believe that she crossed an ethical line?

SPICER: Kellyanne has been counselled. That's -- she's been counseled on that subject and that's it.


BLITZER: Didn't explain what that means.

Here is precisely the clip of what Kellyanne Conway said that got her in trouble.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR TRUMP ADVISOR: They're using the most prompt woman in Donald Trump's you know most prominent --


CONWAY: --- and using her, who's been a champion for women in the work place to get to him.


CONWAY: I think people can see through hat.


CONAY: Go by Ivanka's stuff, is what I would tell you. I hate shopping, I'm going to go get myself some today. It's a wonderful line. I own some of it. I'm going to give a free commercial here, go buy it everybody. You can find it online.


BLITZER: That's why she's been counseled.

Jeffrey Toobin, what's your reaction? You're our senior legal analyst?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANAYST: My reaction is counselled is my favorite verb.


When I missed my curfew when I was a kid, my parents counselled me.


You know, it's an obvious violation of the law. It's not a criminal statute. No one is going to put Kellyanne Conway in jail. But I think it's much ado about -- the specific is not all that important. But I think the larger point is that the Trump business empire is being supported by the Trump presidency. That's what's going to happen over the next four years. All this mythical walls of separation and nonblind trusts, none of that matters. I's that this is a family business, some of the family is in politics, some of the family is making money, but it's all the same enterprise.

BLITZER: David Chalian, your reaction to the counseling of Kellyanne Conway?

CHALIAN: As you said, we don't know what that means. Who counselled her? How was she counseled? Was there any kind of reprimand? We heard Sean Spicer saying and that's it. Jason Chaffetz, the Oversight chairman in the House, called this wrong, wrong, wrong.

I agree with Jeffrey. This is not a matter of statecraft here that we have to be all that concerned but the principle is hugely important because we said this throughout the transition when they weren't being clear on how they would separate President Trump from Executive Trump. Part of the issue we said was this is going to be come up nearly every day where because there's going to be something coming out of the White House that has some impact on the brand over all, and if they don't give the country and the American people clear guidelines, then we have to assume it is going to benefit the brand. And they haven't been clear about that, so moments like that happen, and will continue to be with us.

[14:45:15] SANTORUM: I don't think anyone can say that what has happened the last two weeks has benefitted the brand. Let's be honest.


SANTORUM: They have been beaten up pretty hard, and I think what you're seeing from Kellyanne is reaction, hey, they're coming after us at every turn, and her natural inclination -- not right inclination -- but natural inclination is to fight back. So, I don't think you can say Donald Trump's presidency has benefited the Trump brand from a business standpoint. So, to say, as Jeffrey said, oh, this is all about Trump, I don't see that. I mean --


BLITZER: Do you agree, Angela?

RYE: No, I don't agree at all. We just watched Kellyanne give a QVC commercial. We watch hotel deals being made. I'm not sure what data you're relying to saying he's not benefitted from this. He absolutely has. In part, especially based on what Jeffrey alluded to, the fact that there is no blind trust, there is no separation. So of course the brand is benefitting from that, because power breeds money. He didn't separate himself from his business at all. And Ivanka is running her fashion line from the West Wing.


RYE: Or from the East Wing.

SANTORUM: No, she's not running her fashion line from the East Wing.

RYE: OK. SANTORUM: Number one. Number two, Kellyanne did something that I agree was wrong, and she is being counseled on it. And they have to be a lot more careful. But the idea that the Trump brand is getting positive things and the business is rising because of the president's activities is simply not right. They're getting boycotted all over the place.

BLITZER: Weigh in on this as well. An important issue came up with the Q&A with Sean Spicer. One reporting saying the president likes to tweet about Nordstrom and all sorts of stuff but hasn't said anything about the slaughter of six Muslims in a mosque in Quebec. And Sean Spicer said, I made a statement at the top of my briefing say the president expressed his condolences in a phone call with the prime minister of Canada. He hasn't said anything publicly.

CHALIAN: I don't doubt that the White House did so, the point of the question was emphasis and priorities and for the president to speak in his own voice. Sometimes he chooses to do so tweets about Nordstrom and sometimes he chooses not to. The question was aimed at that, worth of speaking out in his own voice.


BASH: Right. The context was that Quebec was an incident of an attack that was done by a white -- we think maybe white nationalist, but certainly was not the kind of attack where it was somebody who was perhaps fighting for Islamic fundamentalism. It was kind of the reverse of that. So, that was the context of the question, why is he not an equal opportunity opponent of attacks and eager to talk about those.

SCIUTTO: It was an obvious omission. It was a deadly attack, a horrible attack, horrible loss of life. And the president has tweeted about attacks, even before established as terrorist attacks. With the Egyptian airliner that went down and, still, to this day, it's not clear what happened, but on that day, he was calling it an act of Islamic terrorism. So, yes, a statement from the podium has weight and, in a normal administration, that might be the final say, or the most important statement. But in this administration, as you have said and others, the tweet is probably his most powerful tool and has not been used to mark --


BASH: And you really know what he cares about and thinks about by his tweets. Oftentimes, he does it before he gets into the Oval Office.

SANTORUM: It should not be a shock to anybody that presidents, anybody, aren't going to tweet out things that's doesn't fit the narrative that the administration is trying to put forward. This previous president, when there were attacks by anybody shot that was black, the president one out there talking about it. If it was the reverse, you never heard anything. So, there's a narrative that the White House tries to drive on issues they care about.

(CROSSTALK) SCIUTTO: President Obama didn't comment about shooting of non-color people? I remember him being vocal on Sandy Hook and other --


SANTORUM: That was a mass shooting. I'm talking about -


[14:49:51] SANTORUM: I'm talking about -- look, you know as well as I do, Jim, when there was white-on-black crime, the president was all over it. And when it was black-on-white crime, he was not on it. There's other examples. But if the president is saying, look, we have a problem with radical Islam, he'll focus that in his tweets. He's not going to be distracted. He should have commented on it. It's not surprising.

BASH: I see you're talking about a strategy, but this is about what is right and wrong.

SANTORUM: I think President Obama should have commented on those other things --


SANTORUM: -- and I think President Trump should have commented.

BLITZER: Let me get Angela to weigh in as well.

Go ahead, Angela.

RYE: I think what is interesting, we haven't really talked about these three executive orders yet, but Donald Trump talked about being the law and order president, the three of which will probably undermine Barack Obama's legacy. Saying he didn't mention on black on white crime, that just is not true today they doubled down with law enforcement saying we're standing with you, we're going to protect your lives but haven't said anything about the lives of the folks killed. There were over 900 shooting deaths folks who died at the hands of police officers last year. That's a crisis. He needs to speak on that, issue an executive order on that, and not just worry about law and order at the hands of American citizens. That's a real problem.

BLITZER: He doesn't tweet, Senator Santorum, about the terror attack at Quebec, the killing of the six Muslims at a mosque, but he does tweet and talk about Senator John McCain because he was talking about what happened in the raid in Yemen where a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed. Is that appropriate, to go after Senator McCain, who spent six years as a POW in Vietnam, on an issue like this?

SANTORUM: Wolf, there's some history here, so I don't think you have seen the last of the McCain-Trump battles on a variety of different fronts. They are two rather prickly people when it comes to their persona. So, it is going to make for lots of great meetings here and talking about this in the future. Those two are going to be at it. And to some degree it benefits them both. McCain is the maverick, and Trump and the base is not particularly excited about John McCain, doesn't really like John McCain. and when they're at each other it sort of feeds the own beast.

BASH: Let me add, the elephant in the room, but today, it is about all that, the president went after McCain, Senator Blumenthal in a very personal way. On the heels of what happened yesterday with Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor going after in a personal way and getting reprimanded for it. There's the old school, the decorum that your former Senators are trying to keep in the United States Senate with this rule 19 that you can't say bad things about a sitting Senator, and then down the street in the White House, you have the president who has gone the completely opposite way. And it's just -- it's almost -- it's like whiplash watching these two things happen at the same time.

BLITZER: And today, Jeffrey Toobin, we saw the new attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, he walked into the Justice Department. He was sworn in this morning over at the White House, a very different judicial law enforcement philosophy that is two immediate Democratic predecessors.

TOOBIN: Just an enormous change in emphasis. Eric Holder went to Ferguson when Ferguson was blowing up to talk about the relationship between African-Americans and the police. Loretta Lynch, in North Carolina, talked about how LGBT people -- she said, in her most emotional statement as attorney general, that they were part of the American family and they were going to be protected by the Department of Justice. Now we have a Department of Justice that is going to embrace fully law enforcement, exclusively, and not talk about those other issues. It's a big change.

Elections have consequences, and nowhere will that be more obvious than at the Department of Justice.

BLITZER: And the fact that he was confirmed narrowly confirmed. Betsy had that tiebreaker. He got 52 votes one Democrat, Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, voted to confirm him. How will that play out, Jeffrey, over at the Justice Department?

[14:55:15] TOOBIN: You know what they call you when you were narrowly confirmed as attorney general? Attorney general.


I don't think it will make any difference. He has an agenda. President Trump has an agenda. I think it will be full speed ahead.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by.

Our special coverage will continue in just a few moments, right after a quick break. Brooke Baldwin will pick up our coverage.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[14:49:33] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go to. Top of the hour. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN here.

Breaking news. Let's get to it. President Trump is going after two Senators while celebrating the nomination of a third. We begin with the president and the latest dust up with Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal over his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Moments ago, President Trump showed that he is, indeed, standing by his nominee despite Gorsuch criticizing the president's going after a judge who ruled against his travel ban. Senator Blumenthal said Gorsuch told him he found the president's attack against the judiciary as, quote, "disheartening and demoralizing." Despite Gorsuch's spokesperson confirming --