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Trump Defends Ex-Aide Accused Of Domestic Assault And Abuse; Rachel Brand, Number-Three Justice Department Official, Stepping Down; Pence And Kim Jong-un's Sister Avoid Each Other; White House Denies Chief of Staff Kelly Offered to Resign. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 9, 2018 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:28] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. "Wish him well." President Trump weighs in on the former top aide who resigned amid charges he assaulted and abused two ex-wives. Mr. Trump defending Rob Porter but making no mention of the alleged victims.

Not clear. Porter was one of dozens of White House workers handling sensitive information who still don't have a permanent security clearance. What's behind the delay?

Awaiting the memo. President Trump says the Democrats document defending the FBI against Republican charges of bias will be released soon. But the deadline is looming. Is the White House deliberately delaying the release?

And subtle diplomacy. Kim Jong-un's sister sits just feet from the vice president, Mike Pence, at the Olympic opening ceremonies, stealing the show with a warm handshake with South Korea's president. With the eyes of the world on the Winter Games, is North Korea controlling the narrative?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: There's breaking news, a new report the No. 3 official at the Justice Department is stepping down. We'll have more on that just in a minute.

Also breaking, President Trump's first public remarks on the resignation of key aide Rob Porter, who stepped down after accusations of assault by his two ex-wives went public. President Trump told reporters over at the White House -- and I'm quoting him now -- "We wish him well. He did a very good job," adding it was a very tough time for Porter and noting that he denied the assault allegations. The president made no mention of the alleged victims.

We're going to talk to former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta. He's also a former White House chief of staff. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with CNN's justice correspondent Evan Perez. Evan, there's a new report just out now that a senior very significant Justice Department official is stepping down. What do we know?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Rachel Brand is the associate attorney general. She's the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, and she would be the person who would be next in line if Rod Rosenstein resigns or is fired. Obviously, there's been a lot of speculation about that. Because we know President Trump had been very angry at Rod Rosenstein on the handling of the Mueller investigation, the Russia investigation.

But now "The New York Times" reporting that Rachel Brand is planning to step down. This is after only being on the job about nine months. And so Wolf, the question now is why is she stepping down? We know, obviously, that she was going to be next in line if -- now if Rod Rosenstein were to step down or to be fired, the next person who would be in line would be Noel Francisco, who's the solicitor -- solicitor general.

There's been a lot of speculation, Wolf, about exactly what would happen if the president does go through with his various threats and his anger at Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation.

Rachel Brand is somebody who's never really tried cases. She is a national security law expert. She has served in various capacities in that -- in that area. But this -- these types of investigations are not really her forte. So there's been a lot of speculation as to whether or not she would stay in that job and oversee the Mueller investigation.

We've talked to people at the Justice Department who said that she was uncomfortable with that idea. And certainly, if Rod Rosenstein was on the firing line, we didn't know whether or not she would stay at the Justice Department or not.

And now the idea that she is stepping down is very surprising. Obviously, nine months in, people don't usually just resign that way. We'd have to hear from the Justice Department what they say, what the cause is for her decision to step down.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment. Katie Benner, who wrote the story in "The New York Times," is joining us on the phone right now.

Katie, tell us a little bit more, what you can. Do we know -- has she given an explanation, Rachel Brand, why all of a sudden, after only nine months on the job as the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, she's decided to leave?

KATIE BENNER, REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" (via phone): No explanation. We do know that she is leaving for a job in the private sector, to be the general counsel at a Fortune 500 company. Haven't -- haven't figured out which one yet. People close to her said that it was just an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

But I think it would be naive not to note that the Justice Department has been in a swirl of controversy as of late and that there are a lot of questions around who was going to stay, who was going to go; and it must be a very tense place to work. BLITZER: Because the assumption has always been if Rod Rosenstein,

the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, were fired or forced out or resigned, she would be in overall charge of the special counsel, Robert Mueller's investigation. The immediate assumption I'm getting, Katie, and I wonder if you've heard this, is that she probably would feel pretty uncomfortable with that responsibility. Have you heard that?

BENNER: Well, I think anybody in that role would feel uncomfortable with that responsibility, because then you are suddenly in the crosshairs of the president, who may or may not want Bob Mueller fired.

So the minute you're in charge of overseeing Mueller, you're also suddenly, you know, faced -- confronted with the idea that that you might be asked to someday fire him, and that would be an extraordinarily tricky place to be.

Rachel Brand, she has worked in the Justice Department over three -- over three administrations. She's a politically appointed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Donald Trump. She's extremely politically savvy and she has an extraordinary career. Having to do something like fire Bob Mueller could put all that on ice.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be an awkward -- she's only been on the job, as I said, for nine months. So when is she leaving?

BENNER: Unsure when she's leaving, but I am told that, you know, she has taken the new job.

BLITZER: Have you heard any indication who might replace her?

BENNER: So I believe -- and now let me just look at my notes so that I can get this straight. I'm told that, for all of the acting attorney general roles, Francisco would take over those duties. But for her duties as -- in her current role as the associate attorney general, that would fall to the current principle deputy, and that person would be become acting A.A.G. But who knows? And very, very difficult for the Justice Department to get, you know, people, appointees, through Congress. So we'll see what happens.

BLITZER: In the last few days, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, he's gone out of his way and praised her. This is an extremely tenuous, awkward situation at the top level of the Justice Department, given some of the criticism that they've heard from the president of the United States. Right?

BENNER: Absolutely. And I can -- I think we can say that there's no doubt that this was a big surprise to the top of the Justice Department. It's clear that they have been building her profile. They -- she's written high-profile op-eds in "The Wall Street Journal" around the FISA act extension. She has -- you know, she just led a day-long session on human trafficking with Jeff Sessions, where she was highlighted as the person who really spearhead that had effort.

So indeed, the department has been trying to raise her profile and get her ready for bigger things.

BLITZER: Katie, hold on for a moment. Evan Perez is still with us. You're getting some more information, as well.

PEREZ: Right. One of the things, I think, in addition to what Katie was just talking about, I think one of the questions we've been asking of the Justice Department is whether Rachel Brand might have to even recuse herself from the Russia investigation if that were to pass, simply because her husband works at a law firm that is now representing Rick Gates, one of the people who's been charged by the -- by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It's a question we've asked. Obviously, the -- her husband's law partner only recently declared to the court that he is now involved in that case. That just became official.

BLITZER: These are the new lawyers representing...

PEREZ: Representing Rick Gates. And this is only something that has happened in the last few days.

So the question we had to the Justice Department just in the last few days was whether Rachel Brand would have to recuse herself. We know that she has recused herself on a number of matters, because it had to do with her husband's law firm, which is Sidley Austin here in Washington, Wolf.

And another question -- another thing I wanted to mention is, you know, obviously, she's -- a lot of us know Rachel Brand. I certainly got to know her many years ago. And I know that she consulted a lot of people before she took this job.

This wasn't really a natural fit, she thought, at the beginning. And she had to be persuaded to actually do this job. The No. 3 job is a pretty big job at the Justice Department. And I think nobody -- certainly, she didn't think that this was going to end up being in such a hot seat. Nobody thought this was going to be this level of dysfunction in this administration.

BLITZER: What if anything, Katie, are you hearing about Rod Rosenstein? How secure is he?

BENNER: Well, I think that people are always wondering how secure Rod Rosenstein is. And I think we do know that within the White House, there has been sort of constant back and forth debate between the president and his legal team over what to do about the Mueller investigation, what to do with Rod, and you know, whether or not they should -- they should step in and start thinking about removing people. And that's been a constant source of debate.

I do think that the recusal question Evan just brought up is a really interesting one. And I would love to see what people start finding out about that.

BLITZER: You know, Katie, I want to play a clip. This is the attorney general. I mentioned this earlier, but a week ago, he went out of his way to praise Rachel Brand, the No. 3 official about to leave. Listen to this.


[17:10:06] JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Rod's had 27 years in the department. Rachel's had a number of years in the department previously, and so they both represent the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.


BLITZER: So Katie, you say this has come as a surprise to top officials over there at the Justice Department? I assume the attorney general is surprised, as well.

BENNER: Yes, I do believe that to be true. When I started making calls on the story, I will say that it -- I -- a lot of people were very surprised.

BLITZER: Yes. We know that the attorney general was over at the White House earlier in the day today, as well. So there's a lot going on. Any additional information you're getting?

PEREZ: No, Wolf. We're still waiting for official word from the Justice Department. We know that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was at -- at the White House earlier today. We don't know if he informed the president of this information.

Obviously, this makes -- puts, obviously, a lot more importance on Rod Rosenstein staying on the job, staying on the job there, overseeing the Mueller investigation from the Justice Department. Because now the person, the next person in line is not there, is not going to be there much longer. So we'll see what -- what the Justice Department decides as far as making a replacement for Rachel Brand.

BLITZER: I know you're working your sources. We'll be in close touch with you, Even.

Katie Benner of "The New York Times," good reporting. Thanks so much for joining us.

BENNER: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have more on this afternoon's other major breaking story. Right now there's new fallout from the departure of top White House aide Rob Porter.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president's remarks are only fanning the flames of this controversy.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. More turmoil over her at the White House. The White House just this afternoon has been trying to bat down reports that the chief of staff, John Kelly, has offered to resign. I talked to Hogan Gidley, the deputy White House press secretary over

here. He has just said in the last hour or so that, no, John Kelly has not offered to resign. He has also not offered or expressed a willingness to resign. So they are coming back and pushing back hard on that story, Wolf.

In the meantime, as you said earlier, the president did finally weigh in on the Rob Porter saga over here at the White House that this administration has been dealing with all week long. The president sounded at one point as if he was standing up for his former top aide while not mentioning his alleged victims.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump finally broke his silence about the resignation of his former staff secretary, Rob Porter. But it was hardly a "#MeToo" moment.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we wish him well. He worked very hard. I found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well. It's a -- obviously, a tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House.

And we hope he has a wonderful career, and hopefully, he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly, he's also very sad now.

ACOSTA: The president said nothing about the women who say Porter abused them, but he made a point to highlight Porter's denials.

TRUMP: He also -- as you probably know, he says he's innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent. So you'll have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well. Did a very good job while he was at the White House.

ACOSTA: That sounded eerily similar to the president's comments about failed GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, who faced accusations of sexual abuse.

TRUMP: He denies it. Look, he denies it. I mean, if you look at what -- what is really going on and you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it. He says it didn't happen, and you know, you have to listen to him also.

ACOSTA: the White House is still engaged in damage control after the Porter scandal broke. Chief of staff John Kelly, who first released a statement heaping praise on Porter, eventually issued a memo that adopted a different tone to White House aides writing, "While we are all processing the shocking and troubling allegations made against a former White House staffer, I want you to know that we all take matters of domestic violence seriously. Domestic violence is abhorrent and has no place in our society."

Kelly also held a meeting about Porter with staffers, where he insisted, "I got his resignation." But that's not in line with the facts, as sources tell CNN Kelly has known about the allegations facing Porter for months. Kelly was still backing Porter when the White House first commented publicly on the matter.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I can tell that you Rod has been effective in his role as secretary, and the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.

ACOSTA: Sources tell CNN Porter first informed White House counsel Don McGahn about his past a year ago. That was when Porter's ex-wives began speaking to the FBI. By the spring of last year, the FBI provided a preliminary report to White House security officials.

[17:15:04] Then in the fall, Porter was interviewed by the FBI. It was in November that McGahn, Kelly and another deputy, Joe Hagin, were made aware of Porter's domestic issues. In recent weeks, CNN's learned one of Porter's ex-girlfriends has told McGahn she had concerns about Porter's relationship with communications director Hope Hicks.

One of Porter's ex-wives told her story to Anderson Cooper.

JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: The reality is he's not a monster. He is a -- intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring professional man; and he's deeply troubled and angry and violent. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive.

ACOSTA: Democrats are seizing on the Porter saga to argue the president and his team just don't get it.

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just before I walked on stage, a statement from the president saying he wishes him luck. He has so much talent.

That's like saying, "That axe murderer out there, he's a great painter."

You know, think. Think. Translate this into everyday terms. Is there any other crime -- and it's a crime -- where there'd be an explanation the reason why we shouldn't pay attention to the transgression is because they're good at something?


ACOSTA: Now part of the conversation behind the scenes here at the White House is just how long Kelly will last in his job. Wolf, we've been pressing our sources all day long on this. One name that keeps coming up in the conversation as a possible replacement for John Kelly is the budget director, Mick Mulvaney. A source familiar with these discussions going on behind the scenes here at the White House told me earlier today Mulvaney remains very popular inside the administration. He is not seen as having any enemies and is considered a favorite of the president.

The question is, moving forward, how long Kelly could last in light of this Porter saga that we've been reporting on all week long. And Wolf, I should point out, in just the last several minutes, I talked to a source over here who has been in touch with White House officials about the fate of John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. What this source was told is that John Kelly is the current White House chief of staff -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a factual statement. He is the current White House chief of staff.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: We'll see if he'll be the future White House chief of staff at the same time. All right, Jim Acosta, I know you're working your sources as well. We'll get back to you.

In the meantime, let's get some more on all of these major developments. The former defense secretary, the former CIA director Leon Panetta is joining us. He was also once the White House chief of staff working for then-president Bill Clinton.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right. Let me get your immediate reaction to the breaking news we had at the top of the hour. Rachel Brand, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, resigning after just nine months on the job. What do you think that could mean for the Russia investigation?

PANETTA: Well, it's a -- it's a loss for the Justice Department. She served under three administrations and has really had a reputation for being committed to -- to her job and to the principles of really advancing justice for all. So she's good person.

And to lose somebody like that just tells me that, you know, it's been -- it's been rough duty when you're at the Justice Department. Because you've had all kinds of innuendos thrown at the Justice Department by the White House. There's issues related to trust between the president and the Justice Department and the FBI. It's not easy to be able to serve under those conditions.

So hopefully they'll be able to find somebody who will be able to replace her who will have the same kind of credibility and credentials.

BLITZER: Because we all know the president was very angry at the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing herself from the Russia investigation. The other day he was asked about the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, the No. 2, and he gave a very, very, let's just say -- put it this way, gave no vote of confidence for the No. 2. He said, "You guys try to figure that out."

This is an extraordinary situation. The president of the United States, he doesn't seem to have confidence in his leadership over at the Justice Department.

PANETTA: It's not a -- it's not a good situation, Wolf, for the country. Because frankly, we are a country that operates under the rule of law. That's what our Constitution is all about. That's what our democracy is all about. That we operate pursuant to the rule of law.

And when there is a situation where there isn't trust between the president and the primary law enforcement agency that we have, the Justice Department, and the FBI, if that trust breaks down, then it raises concerns about how committed we are to the rule of law in this country.

[17:20:14] BLITZER: What would happen if the president were to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel?

PANETTA: Well, you know, again, we've seen this in past history with the Saturday Night Massacre during the Nixon administration, where he tried to, basically, fire the team that was involved in investigating what happened in Watergate.

And in the end, what happened is that the truth was found out and that, ultimately, the president, Nixon, faced the real possibility of impeachment as a result of that.

I think individuals that try to somehow hope that an investigation can be detoured or that you can throw enough dust in the air to avoid what that investigation may or may not find, I usually find that, ultimately, the truth comes out. And I think that's the case here.

I think regardless of what this president does, or tries to do, the truth is going to come out, and we will find out exactly what happened with regards to the Russia investigation and with regards to any possible collusion or obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, let's turn to the president's comments today, praising Rob Porter, his former staff secretary, citing his denials; failing to offer any condemnation of domestic abuse; failing to say anything about Rob Porter's two ex-wives or girlfriend, all of whom have complained about abuse coming from him. What do you make of that?

PANETTA: Well, you know, this president has not exactly been very sympathetic to victims of sexual assault or spousal abuse. He hasn't really spoken to that issue in any way. And at a time when there's a tremendous amount of concern about sexual assault, sexual abuse, I think it's important for the president of the United States.

Somebody needs to tell the president of the United States that he's got to be balanced here. He's got to pay attention to what the victims are going through.

I mean, obviously, we all want due process. We all want individuals to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. We understand that. But at the same time, it's pretty clear that women have been the targets of abuse, and the president of the United States ought to, at some point in time, make a comment about the situation that we're confronting in this country that needs to be dealt with for the sake of women and for the sake of men.

BLITZER: You know General Kelly, the White House chief of staff well. He was your military aide when you were the defense secretary. He was supposed to be a moderating influence on the White House. He was the so-called adult in the room. But he frequently finds himself now in the middle of a lot of controversy, including this latest scandal, as you know. What happened here?

PANETTA: Well, I think John himself said that this is probably the toughest job he's ever had. And I'll bet it is. Because it's -- it's not easy to work in a situation where there is tremendous lack of discipline, where there's uncertainty, where you're not sure what the president will or will not say from day to day.

So I think -- I think there's no question that John has been taking fire on a number of fronts here. Whether or not, you know, ultimately, he can survive, I think, depends on the relationship between the president and the chief of staff. If there continues to be a relationship of trust, then John will stick around. If that trust breaks down, then I suspect that the president will make a change.

BLITZER: We've reported and other news organizations have reported, as well, that Kelly has known for months about these accusations against Rob Porter, but he let him stay on the job, even though the FBI refused to give him a permanent security clearances. He stayed there, stayed there, stayed there. Is this the John Kelly you know?

PANETTA: Well, John Kelly is, first and foremost, a Marine. And he's been a great leader as a Marine.

But John himself will tell you that, you know, he's not a politician. And I think the problem is in the White House, Wolf, that when you're chief of staff, you really have to pay attention to anything that could undermine the president. Anything that could appear on the front pages that can hurt the president.

[17:25:23] And sometimes, you know, when you try to protect people because of personal relationships and loyalties, all of which is understandable, frankly, you've got to rise above that. You have to assume that, if there's a problem involving an individual, that that's going to be made public, and it could damage the integrity of the White House. And for whatever reason, I think John missed that. And he's paid a price for that.

BLITZER: Should he resign?

PANETTA: I think that's between the president and John Kelly. I -- I suspect, because he is a Marine, that John will stick to the job as long as the president wants him to be there.

BLITZER: You were White House chief of staff during the Bill Clinton presidency, during the Clinton administration. If you had had your staff secretary, a person with enormous responsibility, with that kind of background, the FBI had briefed you, your other aides, the White House legal counsel had briefed you, how would you have handled that situation?

PANETTA: Personnel issues are some of the toughest issues you deal with in that job. Because you have people that are working for the president. You develop loyalties to those individuals. They work with you every day. And when you find something out that is negative, it really hurts you, and it hurts that relationship.

But you cannot -- you cannot serve the president well if you allow those feelings to take charge. You have to recognize -- and I had to do it as chief of staff. I had to make decisions with regards to staff members in the White House who made a mistake. But because of the mistake, you had to get rid of them. And that's -- that's just one of the responsibilities you've got to assume in that job.

Because first and foremost, the job of chief of staff is not only to oversee the staff, but it's to serve the president of the United States and make sure that nothing is -- nothing happens that undermines the president or creates a bad story that can hurt the president. That's the job of the chief of staff.

BLITZER: Rob Porter wasn't the only one in the White House with security clearance troubles. Can this administration function properly while dozens of staff members serving in the West Wing, serving the president of the United States right now, are denied permanent security clearances? They're working what they call interim or temporary clearances.

PANETTA: I think it's pretty obvious that this was a haphazard process involved in hiring people for this White House that goes back to the very beginning of this administration. They hired people and didn't pay much attention to exactly what kind of baggage those individuals might or might not have had.

And now you've got individuals that are under -- under the FBI, looking at whether or not they can get a security clearance, and there's question marks.

I think if you're dealing with somebody who has a questionable background that is interfering with the ability to get a security clearance, that in the very least, that person ought to take a leave of absence until you resolve that issue. I don't think it makes a hell of a lot of sense to keep people working in their jobs while there's a question about whether or not they're going to have a security clearance.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, I want you to stand by for a moment. We're getting some breaking news. I'm going to get your reaction.

I want to go back to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, what are you learning?

ACOSTA: Wolf, well, we were expecting, that today the White House would possibly have a decision on whether or not they were going to release the Democratic version of that House Intelligence Committee memo on surveillance of former Trump campaign officials as part of the Russia investigation. That decision apparently has not come down yet.

We heard from the principle deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, in a statement to reporters over here in just the last several minutes, and it basically says that the president met with the FBI director this afternoon, Chris Wray, and other top Justice Department officials, as well as people from the White House counsel's office about this issue.

[17:30:00] And according to this statement, the president is weighing his option and will have decision soon. A couple things, Wolf, we heard earlier this week that the president was potentially going to release this memo to go along with that Nunes memo that Republican version of the memo that caused all that controversy a week ago, that this was possibly something that was going to happen. It's interesting that there's a delay in all this as the president continues to weighs these options.

The other think that I think is also worth-mentioning, Wolf, is that the president met with the director of the FBI about this issue today. Keep in mind, it was last week when the FBI director was warning the president of the United States not to release the House Republican memo on surveillance of Trump campaign officials. And so, the president meeting with the FBI director today, I think, is also notable in all of this, Wolf, but no decision just yet.

BLITZER: Well, they've got a deadline, I think, by tomorrow. The five-day deadline in order to release that memo if they're going to release it. We'll see what they redact from that memo. Jim Acosta, thanks very much. I know you're working sources all the time. I want to bring back the Former Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta. So, Mr. Secretary, what's your reaction to that?

PANETTA: Wolf, I've been very concerned about the way this whole matter has been handled largely because it really undermines the role of the House Intelligence Committee which was established to be a bipartisan committee that would be able to review highly classified intelligence, and that they would operate on a bipartisan basis. When they the chairman used intelligence in order to use it for partisan reasons, I think it really was a misuse of the authority he has as chairman.

But more importantly, it undermines the bipartisanship that that committee is supposed to have. So, now, the issue becomes, do you get the Democratic memo which presents obviously other facts so that the American people can make a decision. I think once the mistake was made to release the first memo, there really is no option but to release the second memo so that the American people can make a final decision here as to what -- where the truth lies. So, one way or the other, that memo ought to be made public.

BLITZER: Yes, and rejecting the recommendation of the FBI and Justice Department to releasing the Republican memo, the Nunes memo, as called. The White House claimed, they wanted transparency. The president said the American public deserves to know. We'll see how transparent they're going to be with the rebuttal from the Schiff memo, the Democratic memo right now and we'll stand by for that. Mr. Secretary, as usual, thanks for joining us. PANETTA: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to have more on the breaking news coming up. President Trump's controversial defense of a former aide accused of assaulting two ex-wives.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He says he's innocent and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent. So, you'll have to talk to him about that.



[17:37:28] BLITZER: We are following multiple breaking stories right now, including the person who was next in line at the Justice Department after Rod Rosenstein, has decided to leave. Let's bring in our specialists our correspondents. Abby Phillip, this is a big surprise; she was only, Rachel Brand, on the job for nine months.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I think that alone is something that is kind of alarming and it fits a pattern in this administration of them losing top officials one after the other at a fast clip. But it's also alarming because, first of all, it's Friday night and people have been on the lookout for a sort of cascade of resignations potentially linked to the Russia investigation. I think it's too early to know what this means. Our reporting, apparently, has actually had a private sector, you know, opportunity that she took. But the fact that it's happening now, the that she is the number-three person at the Justice Department, someone who after Rod Rosenstein would be in charge of the Mueller probe, is definitely notable and something worth keeping an eye on.

BLITZER: How do you see it, Samantha?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I'm going to see this from Russia's eyes for a second. I think this is a net benefit to Russia. We know that Russia has been launching an information work their campaign to discredit our institutions, including the FBI and the Department of Justice. Every time a senior official leaves, it send a message that the department is not functioning as well as could it. And I think that fits with this pattern.

BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, look at this graphic that we have showing this shake-up that's been going on over at the Justice Department and the FBI fired, recused, fire, resigned, resigned, resigned. There's been a significant shake-up. And Samantha makes good point. If the Russian meddling in all of this was designed to sow dissent and undermine U.S. democratic institutions, that seems to be working.

MARK PRESTON, CNN EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF POLITICAL PROGRAMMING: It's been very successful. I mean, not only was it successful in 2016 but it's spilling over as we've seen now into 2018. And right now, it doesn't seem like it's slowing down. When you show that graphic, though, how scary is the fact that several of those left because they felt that they had to give their personal allegiance to the president of the United States. Not to the constitution as they swear to do so when they're sworn in, but to the president of the United States. That in itself is very, very scary.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, do you want to weigh in on this?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, not to mention the fact that while all of this is going on, the Russians are persisting, as Mark suggests. And it's not clear that the president of the United States, the White House, the national security apparatus, are keyed in to that and trying to do anything about it. So, that's concerning.

[17:40:07] But obviously, given the freight of situation that we're in, when the number-three person leaves, it is alarming because it does create a situation where someone can come in above Mueller, potentially, in another shake-up and stall this investigation -- and that has been a concern. So, this -- amid all the other appalling news today is going to be of great concern as we go into the weekend.

BLITZER: David, I want to play for you and our viewers, the president's comments today, defending Rob Porter who was forced to resign because a word was disclosed in the media that he had allegedly abused two ex-wives. Listen to the president's defense of Porter.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Well, we wish him well. He worked very hard. I found out about it recently and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well. It's a, obviously, tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career. Hopefully, he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it. And certainly, he's also very sad now. Now, he also, as you probably know, he says he's innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent. So, you'll have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well; did a very good job while he was at the White House.


BLITZER: You're shaking your head. Clearly, you don't believe the president met the moment in that statement.

AXELROD: Well, I don't even think that's a question, Wolf. You know the old expression, denial is not just a river in Egypt. It clearly runs through the White House, through the oval office. It is incredible that they called the White House Press Corps in to speak to this issue and the president of the United States spent the entire time -- I understand loyalty to a friend or a staffer but he spent the whole time buoying a man who was accused of sexual abuse and with compelling enough evidence that he couldn't get his White House clearance, and had -- and the president had not one word of solicitude for the victims.

And I should not have been surprised because this is has been the pattern, this is what he has done throughout. Whether it is -- whether it was Roy Moore, or Roger Ailes, or Bill O'Reilly, or charges against himself. It always comes to the same place, which is, well, they say they're innocent -- essentially, blaming the victims. And this is a terrible, terrible message to say. I saw the vice president; his modular morality unit was rolled out this afternoon to say we're appalled and we have a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual abuse. Well, there's not a lot of evidence of that.

BLITZER: Physical and the emotional abuse against these two ex-wives who went to the FBI and told what happened.

PHILLIP: And one more reason why what the president said wasn't surprising is also because we reported yesterday that the president was irritated with his deputy press secretary who went out at the podium yesterday, and said we messed up. We could've handled this better. He didn't like there was a walk back of the approach to this issue. And what you saw today from the president was effectively the double down. It's something that he's done not just on issues of abuse or actions towards women. He did it when Michael Flynn was fired. He fired Michael Flynn and then later turns down and said he's a good guy. Why were they even asking him questions? It doesn't matter whether he lied to the FBI. This is a pattern and it extends in all things. This is the president who does not like to back down even when the accusations are as horrific as what we're seeing against Rob Porter.

BLITZER: And right at the center right now is the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who knew for months about these accusations.

VINOGRAD: Which is a massive foreign intelligence. The fact that Rob Porter was allowed to stay on for a year was like hanging invitation to Russia, and China, and other foreign intel services to come recruit him. He had secrets, which he didn't want getting out. He had access to the most classified intelligence in the country, and he had influence over the president. So, you have to ask yourself, as chief of staff: why did Kelly want to keep a guy that was an ideal foreign intelligence asset around the president? That's not serving the president well.

BLITZER: How do you see it?

PRESTON: Well, a couple of things. One, is you have to wonder if Kelly just felt comfortable with him going into a situation where he had no allies, right? So, I agree with you, but I wonder if he saw something in Rob Porter that felt akin to him. But I do wonder as well, did the president not go after Rob Porter today -- critical of Rob Porter, because perhaps Rob Porter actually knows something that the president doesn't want Rob Porter to talk about. Now, we don't have any evidence that that is true but remember, his job was basically to be at the president's side all the time. So, you have to wonder what he knows.

[17:45:15] BLITZER: Very quickly, David, is it time for Kelly to go? AXELROD: I would think so. This is a massive mismanagement and it

comes on top of a number of other mishaps here, but there's no excuse for this. I don't know any White House that would've handled this in this way.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by, there's more breaking news. We're following -- I quickly want to point out, though, that David Axelrod has a new edition of his very, very excellent podcast, "The Axe Files", hosting on Monday with the former White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci. Be sure to download it on Monday. "The Axe Files", very, very good.

Coming up, today's awkward close encounter at the Olympics. The Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Jong-un's sister avoided acknowledging the other's presidents, even when they were only a few feet apart.


BLITZER: We have more ahead on all the breaking news, but also tonight, there are lots of questions emerging about why Vice President Mike Pence and top North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un's sister, didn't interact or even acknowledge the other's presence at ceremonies and receptions for today's opening of the Winter Olympics. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. Brian, there were some pretty awkward moments today.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some awkward moments indeed, Wolf. And it raises a key question tonight. With the North Koreans and South Koreans openly engaging with each other at the games, with Kim Jong-un's sister even meeting with South Korea's president this week end, which side's message is resonating more at these Olympics?


TODD: Their eyes never meet; sitting just a few feet from each other; enemies whose countries have never been closer to nuclear war, the sister of Kim Jong-un shook hands warmly with the South Korean president in the VIP box at the Olympic opening ceremonies. But Vice President Mike Pence, by all accounts, never turned around and even acknowledged Kim Yo-jong. Should Mike Pence have turned and smiled, nodded, acknowledged?

ADAM MOUNT, NORTH KOREA EXPERT, FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTIST: I think that would have been a more elegant way to handle the situation. Nobody expects North Korean negotiations to start on a whim, but South Koreans watch the choreography very, very closely.

TODD: Should the North Koreans have maybe smiled at them, nodded?

MOUNT: We can't expect the North Koreans to reach out like that.

TODD: But White House officials and a former Trump adviser tells CNN, they don't think Pence should have engaged at that moment, especially with someone so closely tied to Kim Jong-un's brutality.

CHRISTIAN WHITON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISER IN TRUMP AND BUSH ADMINISTRATION: Think what Pence did was right, coming after the State of the Union where the president highlighted North Korean human rights abuses, and Pence has played a role in elevating that issue. It was important for him and his party felt the same way not to be seen smiling and shaking hands with the representative on this abhorrent regime.

TODD: Pence has made it his mission at the games to counter North Korea's Olympic propaganda. He met with the father of Otto Warmbier, the young American who died after being released from North Korean captivity last year. Pence had an emotional high-profile meeting with North Korean defectors.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've been inspired by your bravery.

TODD: But at the same time, the North and South Koreans have marched into the games under a unified flag, taking a selfie together, a powerful statement. And their top leaders had that symbolic hand shake.

MOUNT: I think it's clear that Pence's message is being overshadowed in the region. He's saying some important things about human rights but at the same time it's clear we're being left behind on the diplomatic front.

TODD: One veteran diplomat says the North Koreans may have successfully manipulated their appearance at the games to show off their diplomatic and political prowess.

EVANS REVERE, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT IN SOUTH KOREA: North Korea is very, very much trying to keep the subject of these Winter Olympics all about them and their participation in these Olympics and having her there representing the royal family, so to speak, I think underscores that message.


TODD: Administration officials traveling with the vice president are pushing back on the notion that Mike Pence snubbed the North Koreans in that VIP booth at the opening ceremonies or at a reception where he also didn't interact with them. Those officials say, it would be fair to cast the lack of interaction as a mutual decision on both sides. They say if Kim Yo-jong or any North Koreans would've approached Pence with pleasantries, he would have responded in kind. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian, the South Koreans are coming into after some criticism as well for their handling of these events, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Christian Whiton, a Former Trump Adviser, who's still plugged in with the administration, he told us, he thinks that the Trump team may be a bit upset with the South Koreans for the way they placed Kim Yo-jong so close to Mike Pence at the opening ceremonies. Whiton also believes, he thinks the South Koreans may be following a little bit too much for the North Koreans' propaganda here at the Olympics in their eagerness to improve relations. BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report. There's

breaking news coming up. President Trump defends the aide who resigned amid allegations he assaulted and abused his ex-wives. Was it a derailed attempt at damage control?


[17:54:39] TRUMP: He says he's innocent and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent. So, you'll have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well. Did a very good job while at he was at the White House. Thank you very much, everybody.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, leaving justice. The third- ranking official at the Justice Department is stepping down, a move that could potentially have major implications for the Russia investigation. We're getting new information this hour.

He says he's innocent. President Trump offers a stunning public defense of his former aide, appearing to buy Rob Porter's denials that he assaulted and abused his ex-wives, ignoring the evidence and the women who say they were terrorized. Is the White House doing more damage with its attempt at damage control?

[18:00:02] Handling secrets. We have new information tonight about dozens of administration officials, including Jared Kushner, who are working without full security clearances. Why are they still allowed access to sensitive information?