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Aired March 2, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:04] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. We begin tonight at the end of a week unlike many we have ever seen with a story that we frankly did not expect to be revisiting. That's because having seen so much smoke blowing, having heard so many misrepresentations and so many insultingly untrue or incomplete statements from the White House, we simply could not imagine they would even dream of bringing it up again.

"Keeping Them Honest," they have. The subject is spousal abuse. Credible allegations of it against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter by two ex-wives, Jennie Willoughby and Colbie Holderness.

This is a photo of what Porter allegedly did to her. There is a word for what the White House engaged in when first confronted with this, what they did the following week and what they are doing again today.

The word is gaslighting. In case you're unfamiliar, gaslighting is when somebody tries to make you question your own reality and perhaps your insanity. Its main weapons include lying, contradiction and denial. Well, today, Porter's former boss, White House chief of staff John Kelly revisited his handling of the scandal in a way that according to new CNN reporting left White House staffers stunned, puzzled, or saying flat-out that General Kelly is not telling the truth. Again.

And I say again because when this story first broke and General Kelly started telling people in the White House his version of events, they were stunned, puzzled or saying flat-out that General Kelly wasn't telling the truth. That was the reporting at the time. And here we are again.

First, here's some of what General Kelly said today that reignited the scandal. And we should point out, he said it unprompted in response to a broader question from reporters about security clearances. No one forced him to say it. He volunteered it.

Quote, "I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over," he told reporters. Even as he said senior staffers, quote, "didn't cover ourselves in glory." Then he put forward a new time line that neither fits our extensive reporting nor the story he told West Wing staffers at the time. He now says he learned of, quote, "a serious accusation" against Porter on the evening of February 6th when "Daily Mail" journalists began asking the White House for a reaction to the story they were about to run. He described it as, quote, "Just the accusation of a messy divorce and

maybe emotional abuse." And this was early that evening. Kelly then says, quote, "We put out a statement of support for him and an hour later now find out there is a second report still not in the press, still no pictures, just an inquiry by someone probably in this room that said, hey, his first wife of 15 years ago says that there was physical abuse."

But that first statement of support described Porter as being, quote, "someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character." Then he says he spoke with Porter who he says had already resigned but was unclear when, which raises even more questions namely when that statement was crafted had Porter already quit? And if so, why the statement defending and praising him?

"Keeping Them Honest" even allowing for some confusion there on General Kelly's part, it pales next to the bigger question -- why, knowing what he knew on the night of the 6th, did the White House continue to defend Porter on the 7th? Why did they stand by that fulsome statement of praise, even letting Porter defend himself to the press that morning, knowing what Kelly today says they knew.

So there is that, which is hard enough to explain, but what makes General Kelly's time line today so bizarre is we've had evidence almost from the beginning suggesting it simply is not true and there's every reason to believe that he knows that's better than we do.

"Keeping Them Honest," you'll hear shortly from the "Daily Mail" editor who sought comment that Tuesday night at the White House from Press Secretary Sanders and her deputy, Raj Shah. He says the paper told them everything they had on both ex-wives including the physical abuse allegations. In short, unless the press office didn't mention it to the chief of staff who also happened to be Porter's boss when that statement was crafted, quoting his defense of Porter, he already knew it all from the "Daily Mail."

Now in addition to that CNN has reported a source inside the White House says that Kelly and two others were also made aware of what the source calls, quote, "the domestic issues," unquote, back in November. Was it emotional? Was it physically? Now we don't know exactly what he was told then, only that it was something that would have raised suspicions.

Here is how Jennie Willoughby described her relationship with her ex- husband.


JENNIE WILLOUGHBY, FORMER WIFE OF ROB PORTER: The first and perhaps the only physical abuse that I suffered was after an argument where we were both yelling in each other's faces which unfortunately had become the norm in our marriage and I removed myself from the situation to take a shower, to cool down, to disengage from the situation. He came to the shower and opened the door and pulled me out to continue yelling at me.

COOPER: He put his hands on you and pulled you out?


COOPER: Was that a -- was that a startling moment for you?

WILLOUGHBY: I think up until that moment, I didn't realize that I was in an abusive marriage. I think that sounds almost ridiculous coming out of my mouth given how I can speak about it and remember things now, but I don't know it was until that moment that I realized I was with a man who was capable of something like that.


[20:05:08] COOPER: That was Jennie Willoughby early February. Yet today, unprompted, Chief of Staff Kelly volunteered that he'd only been told of emotional abuse as if that somehow makes it better.

Shortly after Jennie Willoughby put out a statement. "My only comment," she writes, "is the sadness I felt when Kelly first defended his first statement of the defense of Rob saying they thought it was only emotional abuse." Willoughby told CNN Friday, quote, "He changed the statement after realizing it was physical abuse. That is insulting to anyone suffering in an abusive situation now. Emotional and psychological abuse is abuse."

In any event whatever type of abuse was being alleged General Kelly at least had reason for suspicion before the 6th of February. Jennie Willoughby and Colbie Holderness told the FBI about it early last year as part of their background check for Rob Porter's security clearance.

And again, according to our reporting and others, John Kelly was told about domestic issues back in November. Was he only told about the supposedly less important to Kelly emotional abuse only or everything? And that we don't know. What we know is he almost certainly knew that something was amiss. Something bad enough to hold up what should have been a routine background check for a Harvard educated, seemingly straight arrow like Porter.

Well, we also know is even if he really truly honestly knew nothing until the night of the 6th he still maintained his defense of Porter until the photo of Colbie Holderness became widely viewed.

And though this may have been outside any one's control, why he allowed the president to say nice things about Porter two days later?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it. And certainly he is also very sad.

Now he also, as you probably know, he says he is innocent and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he is innocent. So you will have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well.


COOPER: Chief of Staff Kelly, a four-star general, could not stop the president of the United States from saying that and he did not stop him from tweeting this. Quote, "Peoples' lives are being shattered and destroyed by mere allegations. Some are true and some are false, some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused. Life and career gone. Is there no such thing any longer as due process?"

And perhaps it's not fair to expect anyone to come between the president and his electric Twitter machine especially when he is gaslighting, it certainly falls under the chief of staff's purview to stop the press secretary a week later from trying to gaslight the White House Press Corps.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you saying that the White House counsel never learned until last Tuesday that there was any allegation of any sort that was ever leveled against Rob Porter?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Again, I'm not going to go into the specific details of how the process works, but I can say that we learned of the extent of the situation --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Who is we? Because I want to get Don McGahn specifically.

SANDERS: The White House -- the White House generally. Again, I can't get into the specifics, I can tell you that we were -- the process for the background was ongoing. And the White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check.


COOPER: Well, "Keeping Them Honest," that was just one of a string of misleading statements that have gone out over this. A lot of complicated convoluted explanations that don't quite stand up to a simple alternative. As in the case of Michael Flynn. As in the case of the Trump Tower meeting.

When confronted with an embarrassing or potentially damaging truth, the White House's first instinct is to lie about it.

For more now in today's new timeline, the reaction to it that I alluded to a minute ago, let's bring in CNN's Jim Acosta who is at the White House.

Jim, do we know why General Kelly would choose to rehash this today several weeks after the original reaction from the White House?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, I think he wanted to put the matter to rest, but by all accounts we're hearing from officials over here at the White House earlier today, this was sort of a four-star foul up on the part of the general. He brought reporters back into his office. They go over these details of the timeline and as you were saying just a few moments ago, he said he did not become aware of these red flags of Rob Porter's background until February 6th.

Anderson, the FBI director Christopher Wray testified just recently that they delivered a completed FBI background check to the White House security office in July of last year. Our own sources tell us that White House officials including Chief of Staff John Kelly were made aware much of this last November. So somebody is lying here.

There are lies that being told and it appears we are not getting a straight story from the general when he's saying well, I thought this was just about a message divorce and emotional abuse. Clearly, Anderson, there was more going on.

[20:10:02] COOPER: What did General Kelly say about the security clearance issue?

ACOSTA: That was the other eye-opening part of the day, Anderson. He said to reporters flat-out, and this part did sound very candid. He said when he came on board, he said it was an eye-opening experience back in September when he learned just how many people were working here at the White House with interim security clearances.

As you know, Anderson, a couple of weeks ago we broke the story that more than 100 people over here at the White House were working with interim security clearances. That was shocking in and of itself. The chief of staff said that that was more than he was comfortable with.

But, Anderson, at the same time he also admitted to reporters that the handling of classified material when he came on board here at the White House was simply not up to the standards that he was accustomed to.

Anderson, this is somebody who works for President Trump and who was out on the campaign trail in 2016 slamming Hillary Clinton time and again accusing her of mishandling classified information. And the one other thing that is pretty jaw-dropping of what General Kelly said today to reporter, he said that when he came on board he thought there were too many staffers who had top secret security clearances, and that he bumped down many of those staffers to just secret status.

That paints a picture of just really havoc that was going on inside this White House staff when it came to dealing with these clearances and just who had access to very sensitive information.

COOPER: How are White House staffers reacting to conversations that he had with reporters?

ACOSTA: We heard from a number of sources earlier today, Anderson, who said that they were simply, you know, puzzled as to why John Kelly would want to rehash this now. One official said to me that the timing was odd considering all of the turmoil that they've been involved in all week long. The Hope Hicks departure. The Jared Kushner security status being downgraded. And then this mess over gun control and tariffs.

This official essentially saying we've had enough. It's Friday, let us go home. And yet John Kelly wanted to rehash the Rob Porter saga with what appeared to be, to many sources here at the White House to just be inaccurate information. And again, leaves this question out there, why did John Kelly not handle this the way, you know, you would normally expect the chief of staff to handle it with something as sensitive as allegations of domestic abuse placing somebody in a very important position -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Jim Acosta appreciate that.

Joining us now is David Martosko, the U.S. political editor at the "Daily Mail."

David, thanks for being with us. What exactly did you tell Sarah Sanders and Raj Shah when you met with them on February 6th about what was going to be in your story?

DAVID MARTOSKO, U.S. POLITICAL EDITOR, DAILYMAIL.COM: Well, it felt to me to go and talk to Sarah and Raj. And I spent the 20 minutes with them in Sarah's office. have been doing a lot of reporting on this, working with both of Porter's ex-wives. And I gave them a very complete read on what was going to be in that first sorry. I actually just before this broadcast brought up my notes from that meeting. I read them myself from exactly what I read to them.

I told them that had determined that Porter had grabbed his wife by the shoulders and yanked her out of the shower naked. We told them the date that happened. I explained how we were going to report at the that he had punched the window out, a pane of glass on their front door when she threatened to call the police because he was violating their separation agreement by being in the apartment.

We told them all about the temporary restraining order she filed that she was walking on egg shells throughout her honeymoon, that he had called her -- for lack of a better way of putting it, an F-ing B on their honeymoon. And even that she had miscarried a pregnancy of six weeks because of the stress of being around Porter. So the idea that that simply consisted of emotional abuses simply doesn't track.

COOPER: Right.

MARTOSKO: There was physical abuse there. And one other just correction, Anderson, we didn't tell the White House about the first wife, Colbie Holderness, until the next morning. So the idea that John Kelly heard it hour after we -- you know, after I came into Sarah's office that there would be a second story with the black eye pictures, that makes no sense to me at all. So is doing all this reporting and I didn't tell them about the second story until the following morning.

COOPER: So just to be perfectly clear, there is no way they could have misunderstood what you were sharing with them.


COOPER: I mean, you had mentioned not only the yanking of Jennie Willoughby out of the shower, but also the fact that there had been an order of protection that had been filed.

MARTOSKO: Yes, and Sarah, you know, to her credit as a professional, took copious notes during the entire meeting, asked good questions. I think she had a very clear idea of what was going on.

What's really curious to me is the evolution of these statements from John Kelly. At 7:00, when we were ready to pull the trigger on the story, they sent me an e-mail and I forwarded it to my editor at the and we ran this with John Kelly's glowing statement and Sarah's glowing statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders' glowing statement, and a denial from Porter. By the very next day after we had run the second story with Colbie Holderness' black eye photo, Sarah still read that same glowing statement from John Kelly at the podium in the briefing room.

COOPER: Right.

MARTOSKO: Just before announcing he had resigned.


MARTOSKO: So all of this is very curious. And you know, now General Kelly is saying today that Porter resigned his job to him that Tuesday before our first story ran.

[20:15:09] But the story that we ran carried a statement from him saying in the presence tense that I am proud to work with him. There's just more questions than answers.


COOPER: Right. I noticed that which implied that he was still -- right. Implied that he was still working there because it's all in the present tense.


COOPER: When Chief of Staff Kelly said today that he'd originally only been told about so-called emotional abuse, does that make any sense to you?

MARTOSKO: Well, not unless Sarah Huckabee Sanders was, you know, keeping facts from John Kelly which I think would be, you know, career suicide. She's smarter than that. This is a man, Rob Porter, who worked for General Kelly. And we also know from our reporting and I understand you've confirmed this as well at CNN that the FBI gave John Kelly a detailed and exacting read on their deep dive into Rob Porter in November of last year.

And we also know from what Chris Wray said on the Hill that both of the ex-wives had spoken to the FBI about this earlier in 2017. There is no question to me that General Kelly got information from the FBI that should have raised red flags for him by the bucketful. And there's also no question in my mind that he got a complete read that Tuesday night of what I had explained to Sarah Huckabee Sanders about our reporting.

COOPER: The other thing I don't get is why General Kelly would not only try to kind of re-litigate this today but also give himself, I mean, a pat on the back at the same time.

MARTOSKO: Yes. It really was I think an unforced error. There's no reason for him to re-litigate any of this, much less all of it. You know, we can all speculate about whether he is worried about his job being on the line. He's trying to explain and demonstrate to the president that he's got all this under cover -- under control. We simply don't know.

What I can tell you is, you know, from talking to officials at the White House is that Porter was considered a trusted and important deputy to Kelly. He was General Kelly's second eyes and ears in the Oval Office, and I think it's likely that the general was willing to, you know, sweep some things under the rug because he needed Porter.


MARTOSKO: But ultimately we told them everything we had and if General Kelly says now he didn't know about the physical abuse, that just doesn't make sense.

COOPER: Right, I mean, your last point gets to the question. I mean, if and the "Intercept" hadn't done this reporting would this -- would the actions, you know, have been taken that were taken? Unlikely. Probably we don't know the answer to that.

MARTOSKO: It's hard to know.

COOPER: Hard to know.

MARTOSKO: Just hard to know. All we do know which is by the next day they were still supporting him from the podium and it took General Kelly I think about 14 hours after we ran the story with Miss Holderness's, you know, gruesome black eye photos for him to issue a second statement and condemn domestic abuse. And of course, you know, the day after that the president was saying in the Oval Office that, you know, Rob Porter was the one who was sad.

COOPER: Right. I mean, no mention of domestic abuse or the alleged victims.

David, stay with us because I want to continue the conversation after a short break.

Also, later tonight, will this derail what new reporting says is the current mission -- helping the president get his daughter and son-in- law out of the White House. This is staggering development. The "New York Times'" Maggie Haberman got that scoop. She joins us shortly with the details.


[20:21:38] COOPER: We're talking tonight about White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's new and frankly inaccurate timeline of the Rob Porter affair, what he knew about the abuse allegations from two ex- wives and when he knew them. The's David Martosko is back. And joining us is Phil Mudd and Kirsten Powers.

Kirsten, the new timeline from Chief of Staff Kelly, A, doesn't -- I mean, does it make any sense to you? And B, what message does it send to White House staffers that he's essentially kind of patting himself in the back over this and seems to be creating a whole new narrative?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, it doesn't add up at all and, you know, David just in the previous segment sort of outlined what was -- what he was told. And so he actually was told about physical abuse unless he believes dragging your wife naked out of the shower isn't physical abuse. So it doesn't make sense.

I also think if we just look at the way they -- you know, he let his statement stand about Rob Porter having exemplary character and didn't revoke that, he's now sort of said well, we didn't cover ourselves in glory but, you know, it sort of raises some questions about once all of the information was out, why were you still standing by him? And they were.

I mean, that's the thing that we have to remember without even having to go into the inner workings of the White House. We know what was publicly made and we -- I mean, made public and then we know how they reacted to that public information. And it took them a really long time to come around and ultimately it was because a picture came out and they acted like, oh, well now, we think something happened when in fact what the "Daily Mail" had published was quite clear that there, you know, were serious abuse allegations going on. And you shouldn't be required to have a picture to prove it.

COOPER: And Phil, I mean, just from a sort of background security standpoint, as someone who worked at the FBI and also the CIA, I mean, if the FBI gives the information to the security office at the White House, I mean, is it at all possible that they don't disseminate it further down the chain? I mean whether it's to General Kelly or Sarah Sanders or somebody?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, that's hard to imagine. It's not hard to imagine for 15 days or 30 days but you remember, as we discussed, the case initially closed, the investigation into Rob Porter initially closes in July. That's seven months before the chief of staff makes this -- or removes Rob Porter. Porter leaves the White House. The next follow-up is in November. That's three months before early February when the chief of staff makes these decisions. So it 's not like 15 days, 30 days.

I can see confusion over a short period of time. But let's cut to the chase, Anderson. I don't care what was said today. There's only, in all this fog, two questions you need to ask. When the FBI did the background investigation, did it include the information in July or in November about physical abuse of a former spouse. Question one. That's a yes or no. I don't care what the story is. Yes or no.

Question two, yes or no. When, if that information was included in the file in July or November, was anybody outside the security staff told? Yes or no. I don't care what the story was. I don't care what the timeline was. I want a yes or no answer to those two questions. That's it, Anderson.

COOPER: David, I mean, what does all this say to you about how the White House is functioning or not functioning right now?

MARTOSKO: Well, remember, it's not just how John Kelly's White House is functioning. When the FBI first, you know, concluded -- it concluded last July Reince Priebus was still chief of staff. It's entirely possible Priebus simply didn't pass on to John Kelly everything he was expected to pass on when the -- you know, the torch was handed off.

[20:25:04] But clearly in November Kelly knew that not only that this was in the FBI's files but that they considered it a blackmail risk. So I think there's some dysfunction there clearly.

From my point of view, the central message of this entire story if there's a moral in it is that people of low moral character simply shouldn't be near the levers of power. That just shouldn't happen. And what I'm hearing from some White House officials this evening is that there is some concern that John Kelly may have some problems, you know, tracking with reality when it comes time to tell facts about what he knew and when he knew it.

I think, you know, on further reflection, his entire MO today was to defend why he didn't resign. But very few people remember the history. This goes back months if not more than a year. It's not just about what happened in early February when first ran these stories.

COOPER: Kirsten, it also brings up, you know, Kelly's response regarding -- remember back with Congresswoman Wilson and the Gold Star widow last year where he basically refused to admit he'd made a mistake.

POWERS: Right.

COOPER: I mean, it does seem like, you know, in some ways Kelly is mirroring his boss' inability to admit any mistakes.

POWERS: Yes. I mean, he should have -- I mean, should not have re- opened this. There's no reason to re-open it. And what he is saying is just adding more questions I think than answering anything and so even the way he is talking about it, you know, he said, when he met with reporters that he had never seen Rob Porter be abusive in any way, he was always a total gentleman.

I mean, that is just so beside the point. And it's just unbelievable that after everything that we've been through with the Me Too movement that he would say something like that. The idea that because this person wasn't abusive to his boss, you know, doesn't mean that he's not abusive in his private life. And they've been presented with very credible information.

So what it says is that he really, really wanted to just ignore these women and believe what the man said. It just -- it really did take having a photo and this sort of public shaming in order for him to believe it. But I think the message he is still sending and also talking about sort of it was only -- I thought it was only emotional abuse. Well, you know, emotional abuse is actually really serious and often can be as bad as physical abuse.

COOPER: Yes. Phil, I mean, Kelly was parsing his words today saying the White House Security Office didn't tell them about issues with Porter's file before the reports were published in February. But what he very carefully didn't say was if someone else flagged it earlier which according to our reporting they did. Kelly was made aware of the domestic issues in November.

MUDD: You know, you raised the critical point, Anderson, and that is somebody here has something to answer for. Look, General Kelly has a storied career, he lost his son in battle. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume he didn't know to the end of this process. Again if the FBI initially close in July, did the security office feel so intimidated by the chief of staff that they didn't think it was critical to tell somebody this guy is accused of physical abuse against several people?

How did that happen? Who in the security office made that decision? Was somebody else on the White House staff informed and they chose not to act? If General Kelly didn't know this information there is a secondary question. Who knew it and why didn't they act? And if the FBI didn't find it, there's a bigger question. How the heck didn't you find out that he was accused of abusing two women? I think that's not the answer. The answer is somebody in the White House is not giving up what happened and the timeline.

COOPER: Yes. That seems apparent. Thanks very much, everyone. It's been quite a week for the president -- for President Trump and given a recent history, that is certainly saying something.

When we continue, a conversation with the "New York Times" reporter Maggie Haberman about the president, his daughter Ivanka and his son- in-law Jared Kushner. She co-written a startling piece that says President Trump has privately asked Chief of Staff John Kelly to help move them out of the White House. Move his daughter and her husband out of the White House. That's next.


[20:32:19] COOPER: At the end of a very, very tough week at the White House, much of the focus is turning to the future of the President's daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The New York Times' Maggie Haberman co-authors a story that says, President Trump is privately asking Chief of Staff John Kelly for help in moving both of them out of the White House.

And CNN's Gloria Borger has spoken to an ally of the President, who is really worried. The source says this past week is, "different" and advisers are scared, the President spiraling, lashing out just out control. As I said, it's been quite a week. Maggie Haberman joins us now.

So, Maggie, I've read your article. It's incredible. Just -- what's your latest understanding tonight of the President's feelings about his daughter and son-in-law being in the White House. Does he want them in or out of his administration?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's always more complicated than that, Anderson. And remember, we have had many, many iterations of this over the last year going back to the summer of 2017 where the President was being encouraged to have Jared Kushner leave because of the Russian investigation.

The President's closest emotional relationship is to his daughter. She is -- the one relationship and he's like -- it is different from basically any other relationship that he has with the exception of his wife.

You know, he, I think given his daughter would like her to say, but he is very aware that she has gotten dinged up in the press and he feels responsible for it. He believes, you know, as we often hearing him say that he is being treated unfairly. He believed he is treated unfairly.

Jared Kushner is a different story. Jared Kushner, well on the one hand, the President has some, you know, pangs of sympathy to whatever extent he has those, he feels that Jared Kushner is earning negative headlines rather than splashing back on the President. He never likes it when aides or advisors end up with these kinds of headlines. He feels like it makes him look bad

And I think there is going to be a limit to how much of this he is going to take. You add into the fact that the security clearance issue is not entirely clear about Jared Kushner. We know he was downgraded but we don't know exactly what that means functionally in terms of how he is going to be able to do his job.

You could see a scenario where Ivanka Trump would stay in the White House and Jared Kushner would leave and maybe be part of a new campaign office being built down in D.C. or whatever outpost they have down there. This move to promote Brad Parscale, the campaign's digital person, to campaign manager for 2020, you know, nearly three years out was widely seeing as a Jared Kushner play and widely seen as, you know, primarily about setting his own parameters for John Kelly and making clear that he was there to stay.

But I think the President is growing weary of this. This is a President however, as you know, who says different things to different people and he can believe them in that moment and convince himself that that's actually the case.

[20:35:03] COOPER: So, the reporting though is according -- I mean just want to make sure the word transmitting is exactly as you reported, the President has had conversations with John Kelly -- HABERMAN: Yes.

COOPER: -- or approach John Kelly about what to do with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump?

HABERMAN: He has had conversations about what to do with them. He has said to a couple of people, Jared has to go, very specifically. And then he has told other people about whether both should stay or go. He has been a little more explicit with Kelly. And a bunch of people in the White House are aware of it to the extent that several aides are confused as to why both of them have remained. But both of them, so far, appeared to be digging in and trying to say as long as they can.

COOPER: Gloria Borger talked to a source, Presidential ally, who says, "Something is very wrong at the White House." I'm wondering, is that consistent with the sense you'll be getting from people you're talking to that this current doubt of instability or chaos would have everyone described it, is unique even by the standards of the Trump White House?

HABERMAN: Absolutely. I mean, I've had the several similar conversations, I thought Gloria's piece this week was spot on. Everyone sounds very alarmed. People who know the President well. People who have only come to work for him recently. Something has changed. They can't quite put their finger on what it is. But things around the White House feel in a world of several West Wing advisers, a lot like the early weeks of the Trump administration when there was total chaos.

One side of the White House didn't know what the other side was doing. There was open warfare between different factions. This feels a little more in free fall and it has been, I think in large part accelerated by this Rob Porter issue, both because you are absent a staffer who had been a pretty key one as the staff secretary, he helped move a lot of policy and was playing a bunch of crucial roles and he was an adviser to John Kelly.

It has exposed to a greater wish (ph), if you don't have normal systems in place, such as with the security clearances, a lot of problems can arise. And it has sort of taken the air of command to control that John Kelly had managed to create around himself as bringing order to the White House, that has just gone.

COOPER: Right. I mean, the reporting I saw today about, you know, this meeting with Steel executives that a lot of people in the White House didn't even know what the President was going to announce regarding tariff.

HABERMAN: That's completely accurate. I spoke to one West Wing advisor, the night before, who was talking about how many people needed to be coming in early just to try to -- essentially triangulate against the possibility that the markets could open down based on whatever the White House ultimately decided to do.

This is wearying and toxic for most of the people who work there. Many of whom actually do want to do a good work and or not sort of hanging out and having fun.

COOPER: The President and the First Lady, they are at Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. You made the point before that, that his tweeting can literally depend on if it's good golfing whether -- we actually called the scene and weather center, the forecast for Palm Beach is sunny all weekend --

HABERMAN: But windy, I checked. Actually, my --


COOPER: It would be on the late '70s.

HABERMAN: That's right.

COOPER: Maybe a little breezy, we were told. So, I mean that -- I guess that -- I don't know if bodes well, I guess if that's the adjective to you, I mean unless the President see something on T.V. before after his 18 holes.

HABERMAN: Yes. I mean I think that, the other factor to put in there is that there's this RNC fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago this weekend. And I think they're going to get a lot of the President doing his greatest hits and how he won and nobody appreciates it and the Russia hoax and he may just work himself into a lather because of that.

COOPER: The President -- Maggie, I appreciate that. Fascinating reporting today as always. Thanks very much.

The President is also under scrutiny for his meeting last night with the NRA. Earlier this week, he met with the bipartisan group, if you remembered lawmakers told him the gun lobby has less power over him. Is that really the case, though? Could he now be changing his mind and caving to the NRA? We'll take a look at that tonight. And later, new Twitter battle between President Trump and the Actor Alec Baldwin. A perfect way to end the week.


[20:42:44] COOPER: Well, the question is, does President Trump caving on gun control? The White House insists that he not wavering, but some members of Congress are not so sure after the President latest face to face meeting with the NRA the second one this week. And so we got to this point.

Now, on Wednesday, the President met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House. If you remember that, that's when he seem to signal support for stronger background checks raising the minimum age to buy rifles and taking guns away from the mentally ill. All of which the gun lobby opposes. But the President insisted at Wednesday's meeting, he wouldn't be pushed around by the NRA. Take a look.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The reason I had lunch with the NRA on Sunday, I called them, I said, you got to come over. I said, fellas, we got to do something. And they have great power, I agree with that. They have great power over you people. They have less power over me. I don't need it. What do I need?


COOPER: So that was Wednesday just a couple of days after his first meeting of the week with the NRA. Now the second meeting with the group came the next day, actually last night, Chris Cox the Executive Director of the NRA's lobbying arm was in the room. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Cox tweeted, "I had a great meeting with @RealDonaldTrump and Vice President Pence. We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people. POTUS and the Vice President support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don't want gun control."

That's leading to questions of course of where the White House actually stands on gun control. Earlier tonight, I spoke with Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty who is in that White House meeting earlier this week. The Connecticut Democrat represents the folks in new town where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened more than five years ago.


COOPER: Congresswoman, Sarah Sanders went out this morning and sort of soft pedaled a lot of what the President said at the meeting on Wednesday and yet, then also said that the President has not shifted his stance on gun since then. Do you know what to believe at this point?

REP. ELIZABETH ESTY, (D) CONNECTICUT: I don't think any of us know what to believe. And at the end of the day, it's going to come down to in my view one of two things. Either we pass real serious legislation or people are going to turn out in November and vote for a Congress that's going to actually do something about this issue. That's what I'm hearing from people. And I think that's why the President in many ways would like to do something. I think he knows that in his gut.

[20:45:03] COOPER: You think this really will become a voting issue for those who want more gun control because in the past, though obviously, you know, people have raised, you know, raised this as an issue and it hasn't necessary been a thing that's driven people to the polls.

ESTY: No it hasn't. And as someone who represents new town and got elected to Congress just a few weeks before that, I think all of us in America and frankly across the world thought that Congress would act, and Congress would act immediately in the wake of that horrific slaughter of school children. But I think in some ways, maybe we were too much in shock.

And I don't know really why. But this time, I'll tell you what's different. And it's the students from Parkland. And the students have the passion and they know this is wrong and they are part of the new town generation. They have grown up with active shooter drills and they know this is wrong and they shouldn't be in classrooms walking over the bodies of their classmate. And they are angry and they are right to be angry. And I do think we're going to show them and their parents and their friends and their older sisters and brothers showing up in November, if nothing serious and we say nothing serious happened.

COOPER: You know, the meeting that the President had the other day, it did sort of remind me that meeting he had had weeks ago on the immigration again, it was a bipartisan meeting in which he seemed kind of all over the map. I mean, he would say to Democrats President basically seem to be backing their positions and then when Republicans to their room would sort of seer him back to the Republican positions, he would go back to the Republicans positions.

And then -- but he was talking about comprehensive immigration reform. He is talking that comprehensive, you know, comprehensive measures on gun control in that meeting. It does seem like -- I mean, do you think the President understands these issues enough or actually has a position?

ESTY: Well, as somebody who was at that meeting, I can tell you a lot of us were surprised by a lot of things that he said. Certainly everyone was surprised when he pushed back on Steve Scalise who himself survived a shooting this last year. When he was pushing for concealed carrying permits and reciprocity around the country and the President twice emphatically basically said no, that's not going to be in a big bill that goes in front of Congress right now. And he is right about that. That would not pass in the Senate. So it's right to say no on that. And I think that did surprise a lot of us.

COOPER: It's interesting, because I don't think it's a coincidence that the President is willing to meet with bipartisan group of lawmakers and talk about gun issues on camera but only met with NRA it seems behind closed doors, which is now done twice this week.

ESTY: Yes, I notice that too. He certainly likes the idea of doing something nobody else has done. That was very clear at the meeting. He said over and over, you know, why didn't anything happened in the past because I wasn't there. You didn't have someone like me. He likes the idea of doing something nobody else can do and has been able to do.

So we'll see. I mean, if he can really take on the NRA if he is willing to do that, he sounded like he was willing to do that on Wednesday, but then, we're hearing whole different things tweets out this morning and tweets out from the NRA saying, no, he really doesn't want to make any changes.

COOPER: Congresswoman, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

ESTY: Thanks very much, Anderson.


COOPER: President Trump didn't confine himself to tweeting about domestic and international issues. Today, he also re ignited the Twitter war with actor Alec Baldwin who famously imitates the President on "Saturday Night Live." Details on that, ahead.


[20:52:54] COOPER: It's a rare day when President Trump can resist tweeting, remember all the way back to last week when he was twitterless for forty-eight hours. It was, actually, I think for awhile. Along with tweeting about Steel today. He did find time to tweet actor about Alec Baldwin.

Randi Kaye tonight has all the back and forth.


ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: I am not a crook. OK. Plus, I bet Nixon only got one scoop of ice cream for desert but I get two scoops. OK. Two scoops, two scoops.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Actor Alec Baldwin doing his best impression of President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.

BALDWIN: And they seems like what's coming out of my mouth is B-A-N A-N-A-S. But it's all part of the plan.

KAYE: When the Hollywood reporter asked him this week how long he can keep playing Donald Trump, Baldwin responded "Every time I do it now, it's like agony. Agony." That wasn't lost on the man in the Oval Office.

Before dawn on Friday morning, despite all that's happening in the world, Donald Trump started a Twitter feud with the actor.

"Alec Baldwin, whose dying mediocre career was saved by his terrible impersonation of me on SNL, now says playing me was agony. Alec, it was agony for those who were forced to watch. Bring back Darrell Hammond, funnier and a far greater talent."

Hammond had played Trump on SNL years ago.

BALDWIN: Working with my daughter it's been a huge joy for her. And I think we make a real --

KAYE: Meanwhile, Trump's original tweet had to be deleted and reposted after he called the actor Alex instead of Alec and misspelled the word "dying."

Baldwin never one to back down from a good fight tweeted back about an hour later. "Agony though it may be, I'd like to hang in there for the impeachment hearings, the resignation speech, the farewell helicopter ride to Mara-a-Lago. You know, the good stuff that we've all been waiting for."

The actor later went on to tweet, "Looking forward to the Trump presidential library. A putting green, recipes for chocolate cake, a live Twitter feed for visitors to post on. A little black book with a phone numbers of porn stars. You're in and out in five minutes. Just like --"

[20:55:01] BALDWIN: Folks --

KAYE: This isn't the first time that Trump has criticized Baldwin's impersonation of him.

BALDWIN: You think I care about optics? Look at me. I sit on every chair like it's a toilet, OK.

KAYE (on camera): Just two months after Baldwin's SNL debut as Trump in 2016, Trump tweeted calling the show "totally unwatchable and not funny." Adding that Baldwin's impersonation just can't get any worse. The tweet ended with Trump's trademark, "Sad."

Despite what the President thinks, Baldwin's impersonation is a hit.

KAYE (voice-over): When the actor hosted SNL, it had the largest audience since 2011. And his impersonation won him an Emmy Award.

BALDWIN: At long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy.

KAYE: On Jimmy Kimmel's late night show. Baldwin talked about his very first dress rehearsal playing the president.

BALDWIB: It was like a scene from a mental hospital. I'm getting the wig on me and I'm sitting there the whole time going, "China, China, China."

KAYE: In this latest Twitter feud, it seems Baldwin had the last laugh. Tweeting at Trump, "And Mr. President, please ask your wife to stop calling me for SNL tickets."

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


COOPER: Only New York. There's more ahead tonight.

Up next, the President Chief of Staff, stands tougher and raises a lot of new questions when he revisits the Rob Porter scandal and misrepresents he's handling the accusation, Mr. Porter physically or emotionally abused two ex-wives.