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Congress Races to Pass Budget; White House Aide Abuse Allegations; Trump At National Prayer Breakfast. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 8, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Congress rushes to pass a giant, new spending plan, many conservatives are asking what happened to Republican promises to shrink the deficit and balance the budget?

Plus, what did they know and when did they know it? Top White House officials defended and protected a top presidential aide accused of beating his first and second wives.

And, no jokes this year. The president attends the National Prayer Breakfast and sticks to the script.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All we have to do is open our eyes and look around us, and we can see God's hand in the courage of our fellow citizens. When Americans are able to live by their convictions, to speak openly of their faith, and to teach their children what is right, our families thrive, our communities flourish, and our nation can achieve anything at all.


KING: We begin the hour with this reminder. Assumptions in the new Washington are dangerous. But with the midnight deadline approaching, the prevailing assumption is that the government won't shut down and that the mammoth two-year budget framework brokered in the Senate will wind up on the president's desk.

There's a lot of complaining on the left and the right. The plan itself, stunning. In a Washington where Republicans control everything, this new plan is anchored on massive new spending, massive new deficit spending, and on erasing those spending restraints the Republicans forced on the Democratic Obama administration. Gone, as in banished to another galaxy it seems, is this Republican Party.


REP. PAUL RYAN, HOUSE SPEAKER (June 23, 2010): So what we have here is a spending gusher that's going to keep on gushing.

And they have no plan to get this fiscal house in order.

RYAN (August 1, 2011): We are cutting spending. You haven't heard that kind of a statement before around this town. But we really do believe that the value of this Republican majority has been a change to this culture.

RYAN (March 21, 2013): We want to balance the budget. They don't. We want to restrain spending. They want to spend more money. We think taxpayers have given enough to Washington.


KING: CNN's Phil Mattingly live for us on Capitol Hill.

And, Phil, you were just asking the speaker the very question, what happened to your past? What happened to the old Republican Party that was committed to balancing the budget, ending deficit spending? But, for today, they think this will pass and they're going to explain it away?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I asked the speaker quite plainly, did that Paul Ryan, the Paul Ryan as House Budget Chairman, the Paul Ryan of a couple years ago, would he actually support this deal? And I think his answer is really indicative of what the push is, what the sell is right now and where you're finding right now a lot of Republican members specifically are ending up. It's the defense spending kind of outweighs everything else at this point. The major plus-up in defense spending for multiple years. Something that Defense Secretary James Mattis has been on The Hill multiple times pleading with members to finally give him. That wins the day over the 130 plus billions dollars in non-defense spending, over the 80 plus billion dollars in disaster relief. All of those things, they're essentially being pushed to the side right now.

And I think, look, if Republicans were honest, if this were four years ago, five years ago, the answer would probably be no on a major bill like this. But the idea -- and I think the speaker actually hit on this as well -- that this is a bipartisan proposal. There's going to be things in here that a lot of people don't like. But, in the end, it gets the key priorities they've been looking for. Right now is winning out.

Look, John, the Senate's in a good place right now. We know -- we don't know when the vote's actually going to be, but we know that when the vote actually happens, they'll get it across the finish line. The question has been in the House and the question has very obviously been, where are House Democrats going to be on this? Because there are a group of Republicans, 30, 40, maybe 50 right now who have the spending issues and will vote no. That means Speaker Ryan's going to need some Democrats. You just needed to look on the House floor yesterday at Leader Nancy Pelosi to see what their issue is, what their hang-up is on immigration right now.

What I'm being told is the expectation is the Democratic votes will be there. They're not solidly there yet, but they feel like they're in a good place right now. The only question, it seems, is when, and, frankly, whether or not everybody's actually read this 652-page bill that was released last night shortly before midnight.

KING: A long day ahead for Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.

Phil, the coffee's on me. We'll talk to you a bit later in the day.


KING: With us here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Abby Phillip, Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal," Michael Warren with "The Weekly Standard," and CNN's MJ Lee.

All right, let's just start there. And, Michael, I'll start with you in the sense that when the Republicans took over Congress, this is what they said they were going to do. They were going to go back to fiscal discipline, go back to, yes, we'll have to spend on the military, but we're going to get the budget on a path to balancing. Let's deal with the deficit. If President Obama proposed this deal, they would laugh him out of town. Now they're going to pass it.

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Yes. Governing is a little bit harder than being in the opposition. I think a lot of Republicans are finding that.

I think there's also a lot of actual difference among Republicans about what spending is important to control and what wasn't. A lot of defense-focused conservatives and Republicans very upset about that budget control act and the cap on defense spending, really happy to see those caps going.

Also, Speaker Ryan is someone who knows you can judge this based on all the work he's done that it's not the discretionary spending that's really the problem and the driver of the debt, it's entitlements. But what do we have? A Republican president who said, I'm not going to touch entitlements whatsoever. And so here we are.

[12:05:01] ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think what Republicans are also learning is that it's easier to give people things than it is to take them away. It's hard to cut even that -- even though that's been the mantra for a long time.

I think you're right, that if Obama had proposed this, it would never have gone anywhere, even if the defense spending levels were what they were. But now that Republicans are in the driver's seat, a lot of them are putting that aside because it's frankly more politically convenient to say, we funded the military, and then they don't even have to finish the sentence about domestic spending. They can just say what they did rather than, you know, you can -- it's harder to make an argument about cutting spending, especially entitlements.

KING: You saw -- you saw the speaker there. He brought to his press conference Martha McSally, an Iraq War veteran, a combat veteran, says the military needs this money. Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, daughter of the former defense secretary, a conservative from Wyoming who says, you know, the Freedom Caucus are the fiscal conservatives, we've got to do it this time. We've got to do it this time. That tells me, a, that the speaker's a little bit worried. And, b, of how much things have changed. I mean when -- John Boehner lost his job in part because he cut a big deal like this.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. And I think that definitely goes to show that nobody knows for sure until the votes are actually taken. I do think that Paul Ryan, right now, is in a position where he would like to exude confidence rather than, you know, have reporters talking about the fact that the votes may not be there yet. This is a lot of sort of bringing the different factions together, not just within the Republican Party but needing the Democratic votes.

I do think that for the Democrats who are watching all of this play out and just got this personal reassurance from Paul Ryan that the DACA issue is going to be dealt with as soon as this is voted on, that's important.

I do think that there is something to Democrats sort of showing their displeasure until the last minute. There's no political benefit to saying, hooray, we're on board right now, and, you know, putting the pressure on the other party until they feel like they need to vote yes.

KING: In defense of the Republicans, it is just 51-49 in the Senate, so they do have to deal with the Democrats. There's no way they can get this done without dealing with the Democrats.

But what has been interesting, Michael, is the sense that if you talk to anybody on Capitol Hill, they say, we did this essentially without the president. We know the president's going to sign it. The president has lofted his, let's have a shutdown if I don't get my way on immigration into it. They just ignored that. But we have a spending plan that's going to go to a nominally Republican president who's going to sign it who had no involvement in it or very little involvement in it.

MICHAEL BENDER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Yes, that's right. And it has been kind confusing trying to figure out where this White House is. That whole back and forth about the shutdown you had. Basically within a couple of hours the president saying one thing and then the White House press secretary sort of denying what the president had just said.

But the fact is, the president is not in the weeds on this bill. His involvement, if anything, is given the Ryan wing cover to sort of -- to move to this kind of budget and allow this sort of deficit spending. I don't think the president has necessarily influenced Ryan or talked him into a different philosophy on budgeteering. But the fact that you have a president, who from the campaign trail, referred to himself as the king of debt, from the campaign trail said that he was going to not touch entitlements, the entitlements that Ryan has spent the better part of a decade trying to rework. So at the very least, there is some calculation there that this -- at least in that sense, this party is moving toward -- the Republican leaders are moving closer to their leader of the party in the White House.

KING: And the one argument they do have working in favor of votes -- I'm not going to take judgement on whether a good idea or bad -- if it's one they have working in favor of getting votes is the military argument. Now, it was the Republicans who -- Republicans were part of the deal that imposed the military sequester, as Michael mentioned, on the Pentagon, capping spending there as it capped domestic spending as well. Now they want to take that off and they say, listen to Secretary Mattis, listen to Lindsey Graham here saying listen to your defense secretary. They need the money for the troops for training and for new ships and tanks.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: So to all my friends in Congress who believe this is not a good deal, you should be listening to General Mattis. Freedom is not free, Jim. The Freedom Caucus is a good group of conservatives, but freedom is not delivered by anybody on Capitol Hill. It's delivered by the men and women who have been at war for the last 17 years, who are all over the world, who need more help, not less, from Congress.


KING: It's a valid argument. The Pentagon says they need the money. They need to be able to do long-term planning. What the Freedom Caucus members Lindsey Graham is talking about there saying, OK, but if we're going to spend here, why can't we cut somewhere else? But this -- they just don't -- is it that they don't have the votes or is that they don't have the will?

WARREN: Probably both, right? I mean, again, the Freedom Caucus is sort of outside influence on a conference that is not so committed to cutting the discretionary spending, or certainly not committed enough to let defense spending continue to be capped. I think this is something that's sort of been missing in the sort of underlying analysis of how the Republican Congress has been over the last seven -- I guess now nearly eight years, which is that a lot of that enthusiasm for sort of Tea Party-ism was probably skin deep.

PHILLIP: Right. This is the return of the Republicans that -- who are closer to Lindsey Graham than the Freedom Caucus. These people were in Congress before the Freedom Caucus came in, in those waves during the Obama years and they're reinserting their influence in the Republican caucus right now in part because they now have a president who, frankly, doesn't really care all that much about deficit spending. He wants the military spending and he probably still wants an infrastructure bill whether he gets it or not. But that's all deficit spending. He has no interest right now in cutting.

[12:10:24] KING: Is it fair to say that one motivation here is not included in the bill. It's the simple fact that if you have a two year spending plan, you put the debt ceiling issue off until after the election, there's no more threat of a government shutdown between now and November, both parties have things in this bill they can like, both parties have things in this bill they don't like, but both parties can now go home and focus on the campaign year, that they're not trapped in Washington, that the threat of another government shutdown as the campaign approaches. Fair?

LEE: I think there is very little desire to keep doing this over and over again. The idea of putting this off the table for two years is very, very appealing. KING: In and of itself on the -- to the math and we'll see how the

votes go tonight. Again, everyone says it's going to pass. Assumptions can be dangerous. We'll keep an eye on that.

Up next, a top aide, once considered a rising star, out at the White House after two ex-wives come forward with abuse allegations. But those claims weren't a secret inside the West Wing.


[12:15:17] KING: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is facing scrutiny and criticism for defending and protecting a senior White House aide accused of violent abuse. Those accusations from two ex- wives. Rob Porter announced yesterday he is resigning from his position as staff secretary to the president. The staff secretary handles the most sensitive documents that reach the president's desk. Porter was kept in that job even though he could not get a top security clearance because of what the ex-wives told the FBI as part of a background investigation. One of the ex-wives spoke yesterday to "The Washington Post."


JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: He came and grabbed me by the shoulders here and pulled me out of the shower in a rage. Immediately I'm seeing the terror in my face, retracted and apologized and changed composure immediately. But that was -- that was the first time that he had laid hands on me.


KING: Now, Porter denies these claims and released this statement Wednesday.

These outrageous allegations are simply false, the statement said. I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.

So how much did the chief of staff know and when did he know it?

Let's go live now to CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, answer the question to the degree that you can and where does it leave the chief of staff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, that is a great question. And of course it's not the first time that this question has been asked of the chief of staff. Where does he stand with President Trump? Of course that question is asked of many people.

We know that the president is capable of being furious at someone and keeping them in their position. Look at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example. He's been furious at him for months, but he remains.

So I am told by talking to multiple people here that the president may be upset with the handling of this, but is in not in any way, shape or form ready to dismiss him or get rid of him over this.

The question here, John, I think, is an internal White House one. What did the chief of staff know? Multiple White House officials we are talking to last evening and this morning say that there was a sense that something was amiss, that he was not getting the security clearance for a reason. But Rob Porter misled, in the words of White House officials now saying he misled many of them about the serious nature of these allegations, about the serious nature of the abuse.

But White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, by putting out statements essentially of praise as though Rob Porter was leaving for his retirement party or something, simply undermined the seriousness of the issues here. It wasn't until last evening that the chief of staff put out another statement talking about domestic violence.

So the handling of this, no question about it, has not been one of the high points here. But the question is, where does he remain with the president? As of now, based on everything we know, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, remains in his position and his role. He went with the president this morning to the National Prayer Breakfast. Always a sign if he's traveling with the president, he's at least somewhat still in his good graces.


KING: Jeff Zeleny, appreciate the reporting.

Let's bring it inside the room.

This is stunning. And, again, for people who don't understand, people at home that don't understand the titles in Washington, a staff secretary is somebody who is essentially glued to the president most of the time. And Rob Porter, by all accounts, was a rising star. Even though he had a job to begin with, was a rising star, essentially treated by John Kelly as a deputy chief of staff.

And so it gets to the point, what did they know and when did they know it? And if he couldn't get a clearance for months and months and months, isn't it John Kelly's job, if he doesn't know all the details, to get them?

PHILLIP: I think the White House this week has been interestingly hanging so many of their twists and turns on this story based on the evidence presented, the photographs, the fact that "The Daily Mail" published those photographs yesterday.

KING: Ones -- forgive me for interrupting, but once it's public, once you see these horrific photos --

PHILLIP: Exactly.

KING: Then they act. Once you see these horrific photos, then they change their story.

PHILLIP: This is exactly the problem.

KING: Right.

PHILLIP: It -- the accusations prior to the photos where that two of Rob Porter's ex-wives accused him of physical abuse during their marriage. That in and of itself is extremely problematic. And it seems very much that the White House didn't take it as seriously until there was a photograph of a black eye published. That's troubling because it fits a kind of pattern of them really not doing due diligence on this stuff, putting out these, you know, laudatory statements about someone under these circumstances and giving not a single breath or a word or a sentence to the accusations and the need for some kind of process around them. That's why we are where we are right now. That's why the White House is clamming down because they completely mishandled this from the beginning.

KING: And then, in the damage control efforts, the statements defending Mr. Porter are being written by Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, who is in a romantic relationship with Mr. Porter. That is a stunning conflict of interest right there.

[12:20:10] BENDER: Yes. I mean to understand this a little bit, not to excuse it, but to understand this a little bit, this is a very insulated White House, right? They are getting it from all sides. In the John Kelly era, that circle has shrunk even more. It's Hope Hicks, it's John Kelly, it's Rob Porter, maybe a couple other people. And in the John Kelly era, where he's trying to stop the inflow of information that's -- trying to reduce the paperwork and articles and people getting in Trump's ear, Rob Porter is key to that.

And a number of people around the White House had said he was -- he was -- kind of openly talked about as a potential chief of staff. So even -- but -- and I would just kind of back up a little bit, that those pictures came out, which is when -- yes, which is when the White House acted. But even at that point, the White House was still saying that they all wanted him to stay, that it was -- that it was Porter who was insisting on leaving.

It was not until some of the reporting from CNN, some of the reporting from "The Washington Post," where his ex-wives pushed back on his account, did Kelly come out with a statement that said, well, now I'm shocked. Now, you know -- and acknowledging that he didn't have the whole story. Which just goes back to your question here, what the process in the White House is where really a few -- it took a few phone calls to the women who are making these accusations to get a full story here that the White House clearly didn't do.

KING: A, the substance of these allegations is horrific. B, it is their job to do an excellent scrub of anybody who's close to the president, who has access to such sensitive, classified information, whatever the potential issue about the security clearance might be.

I want you to listen here, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also a former FBI agent, Mike Rogers, a CNN contributor, talking about, if you're doing a background check and you have allegations of domestic abuse, flashing bells.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, what should have raised the red flags is apparently the FBI came to them last year and said, can't get a clearance or I would not recommend getting a clearance.

JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEWSROOM": This isn't going to happen ever, basically.

ROGERS: That should have set off all kinds of alarm bells everywhere. That they had something they're going to have to deal with. And apparently it looks, at least on the surface of it, somebody didn't deal with it.


KING: How do they defend that? The FBI said can't get a clearance. Not, it's going to take more time. Not, we're working on it. Can't get a clearance. And is kept in a job where he's walking around with top secret, classified information and handing it to the president. He's the gateway.

WARREN: Yes, I think there's a -- in the short term, he did receive an interim security clearance, which I think would allow him to do his job. He's also not handling the absolute most sensitive information, the sort of intelligence that was -- is in the president's daily brief. That's not going through the staff secretary. But you can imagine for six or seven months, the chaotic White House, even more chaotic than normal at the beginning of the administration, would get sort of -- you know, slip under.

The question is, the fall, which is, I think, when most people are reporting that Kelly and other folks at the White House found out about these allegations. Why the lack of reaction? I think there's a sort of myopia, particularly in this White House, a feeling that they're under siege. And I think a feeling that John Kelly needs all the competent people who have the president's backing around him and sort of blinded somebody like Kelly to this obvious problem.

The other thing I'll say is, I've talked to people -- one person who's no longer at the White House, one person who still is, who says that they were legitimately surprised that Rob Porter did not -- would be the -- as one of them said, the last person you would think to do this. This is something, I think, is reflective of a lot of abusers who -- we should say his alleged about, but the evidence is out there, that they present a completely different person in public or in their employment than they do privately. And that may be something that, you know, contributes to the myopia.

KING: And to that point, both of the ex-wives said that he was marvelously disciplined in his job --

WARREN: That's right.

KING: He was just horrible and abusive in his personal relationships. But it's their job, if you're in the top position around the White House, it's their job. And this is what General Kelly was allegedly brought in to do, to find out and to run a good ship. We'll keep on top of that story.

Up next, the president stays on message and on teleprompter at the National Prayer Breakfast. Last year? Not so much.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know, chaplain, whether or not that's an appointed position? Is that an appointed position? I don't even know if you're a Democratic or if you're a Republican, but I'm appointing you for another year, the hell with it.


[12:28:42] KING: President Trump addressed his Annual Prayer Breakfast here in Washington this morning, and, compared to last year anyway, well, he took the cautious approach.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let us resolve to find the best within ourselves. Let us pray for that extra measure of strength and that extra measure of devotion. And let us seek to build a more just and peaceful world where every child can grow up without violence, worship without fear, and reach their God-given potential.


KING: The president's tone there quite a departure from last year's event, which was just two weeks into the new administration.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had tremendous success on "The Apprentice." And when I ran for president, I had to leave the show. And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It's been a total disaster. And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK?


[12:29:49] KING: This is one of the most fascinating relationships in American politics. Evangelicals, a big part of the president's base. And they've proven loyal despite questions about the president's personal character, including the recent reporting that his lawyer paid a settlement to a porn star. And why is it -- the president's not a churchgoer. He doesn't speak their language. But he did put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. He is filling the lower federal courts with conservative judges. And he has taken other steps, like the Mexico City Policy on funding for abortions and Planned Parenthood