Tuesday August 1, 2017- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes questions from an often rabid White House press corps on camera, dealing with a press corps “obsessed with” Russia. Sanders fired back in this one, leveling serious charges against the Clintons’ connection to Russia, with the Clinton Foundation and Bill Clinton receving millions of dollars from Vladimir Putin’s government. Watch and read the transcript below.
Transcript of the press briefing
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:26 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: All smiles, all the time. Good afternoon.
Q Good afternoon.
MS. SANDERS: Somebody is polite out there. (Laughter.)
In about an hour, the President will join Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon and his daughter Ivanka for a special event highlighting the role small businesses play as major drivers of our economy. Around 58 million people are employed by small businesses around the country, accounting for nearly half of the United States employment. That’s 58 million individuals whose families count on small businesses to keep food on the table, send their children to college, or save for the future.
And that’s why we have an entire agency led by an incredibly successful businesswoman, dedicated specifically to promoting small businesses. During the last administration, small business found themselves under assault from a federal government that seemed determined to keep piling on regulations and compliance requirements until it became impossible to keep their doors open.
Obamacare’s mandate saddled many with healthcare costs they simply couldn’t afford, and every year these business owners see new additions to the tax code that force them to spend additional time and money to file. The President is committed to ending these anti-growth policies and unleashing the American economy. We will continue to work with Congress to repeal Obamacare’s oppressive mandates. And along with our partners in Congress, we will deliver bold tax reform that provides relief for middle-income individuals, a more competitive model for businesses, and a simplification for everyone.
And we will continue the President’s ambitious plans to eliminate unnecessary regulations which disproportionately affect small businesses. We look forward to hearing from the small businesses this afternoon about how the Trump administration can continue to be an advocate for them.
And with that, we’ll keep it short today, and I’ll take your questions now.
Q I wanted to ask about a comment Senator Lindsay Graham made this morning. He said it was wrong that there’s no good military option regarding North Korea. He said there’s a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself. Would the White House be supportive of that option?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Would the White House be supportive of that option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself?
MS. SANDERS: Is somebody lost? Are those directions? Sorry, I just keep hearing somebody’s phone talking or something. Yeah, it’s very distracting.
Q Lindsay Graham said that the only military option against North Korea is to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself.
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President obviously has been very outspoken about how he feels about North Korea. We’re weighing all options, keeping all options on the table. And as we’ve said many times before, we’re not going to broadcast what we’re going to do until that happens.
Q (Inaudible) option?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q So destroying the country like Lindsay Graham says is an option?
MS. SANDERS: Look, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is the President has been very outspoken about the need to stop North Korea. We’ve been very focused on stopping the nuclear program, stopping the missiles, stopping the aggression. That still continues to be the focus, and we’re keeping those — all options on the table in order to do that.
Q Sarah, according to the Washington Post, the President tried to change the narrative of what went down in Don Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer. Can you address that story and tell us, did the President really try to do that?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There’s no inaccuracy in the statement. The President weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had. This is all discussion, frankly, of no consequence. There was no follow-up. It was disclosed to the proper parties, which is how the New York Times found out about it to begin with.
The Democrats want to continue to use this as a PR stunt and are doing everything they can to keep this story alive and in the papers every single day. The President, the American people — they voted America first, not Russia first, and that’s the focus of our administration.
Q Can you clarify the degree to which the President weighed in?
MS. SANDERS: He certainly didn’t dictate, but he — like I said, he weighed in, offered suggestion like any father would do.
Q Did he not know what the intelligence was —
MS. SANDERS: Steven.
Q I want to follow up on that. Was he aware at the time that Don Jr. had had a meeting that was based on the pretext that he would be promised information that was negative about Hillary Clinton when he suggested that the statement only say that the meeting was primarily about Russian adoption policy?
MS. SANDERS: Like I said, the statement that was issued was true, and there were no inaccuracies in the statement.
I think what the bigger question is — everybody wants to try and make this some story about “misleading.” The only thing I see misleading is a year’s worth of stories that have been fueling a false narrative about this Russia collusion, and a phony scandal based on anonymous sources.
And I think that is — if we’re going to talk about misleading, that’s that only thing misleading I see in this entire process. You guys are focused on a meeting that Don Jr. had no consequence when the Democrats actually colluded with a foreign government like Ukraine. The Democrat-linked firm, Fusion GPS, actually took money from the Russian government while it created the phony dossier that’s been the basis for all of the Russia scandal fake news. And if you want to talk further about a relationship with Russia, look no further than the Clintons. As we’ve said time and time again —
Q But you won, Sarah.
MS. SANDERS: — Bill Clinton was paid half-a-million dollars to give a speech to a Russian bank and was personally thanked by Putin for it. Hillary Clinton allowed one-fifth of America’s uranium reserve to be sold to a Russian firm whose investors were Clinton Foundation donors, and the Clinton campaign chairman’s brother lobbied against sanctions on Russia’s largest bank and failed to report it. If you guys want to talk about having relations, which you seem obsessed with doing, look no further than there.
If you want to talk about somebody who has actually been tough on Russia, look at President Trump. He wants more fracking, more coal, more energy, a stronger military, a stronger defense. Those things aren’t good for Russia. I think the distinctions are very clear, and you guys want to create a narrative that just doesn’t exist.
Q Sarah —
Q Sarah —
MS. SANDERS: Hey, guys —
Q Why hasn’t the President signed the Russia bill?
MS. SANDERS: Glenn, go ahead.
Q Sarah, sort of a follow-up on what you were talking about — our obsession with Russia and the responsibility laying with the Clintons. There’s a report out today, based on a lawsuit that was filed, that says that Sean Spicer met with a campaign donor and a journalist from Fox News where they were pushing around this story that Seth Rich, this low-ranking DNC staffer that was murdered, was perhaps the one responsible for the WikiLeaks breach.
Two questions. Sean put out a statement; he said it was just a brief meeting. He said the guy didn’t know the President. The lawsuit alleges that the President knew about it and had an influence on the story. Did the President know about the story, pre-publication, and did he have an influence on the way the story was written?
MS. SANDERS: The President had no knowledge of the story, and it’s completely untrue that here at — the White House involvement in the story. And beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.
Q To follow up, does it disturb you that the Press Secretary, for the President of the United States — you just gave this incredibly passionate pushback on us for focusing on Russia. Does it disturb you — you just sped right past this — does it disturb you that there’s an allegation out there and a lawsuit, and Sean Spicer admitted meeting with these two individuals, that this was discussed in your White House? That this particular —
MS. SANDERS: He met with members of the media. I don’t find that to be a strange thing.
Q He met with a member of the media that was pushing —
MS. SANDERS: You guys are all members of the media.
Q He was pushing a story that was later retracted because it was false. He met with that reporter and he met with a campaign donor. Does it disturb you? Does it say anything about this White House, if you entertain that kind of story?
MS. SANDERS: It doesn’t bother me that the Press Secretary would take a meeting with somebody involved in the media about a story. None of that was disclosed. They had a conversation and that was the end of it. You guys come to us with stories all day. I’ve taken meetings with the majority of the people in this room. I don’t always know the nature of the story of which you’re coming to talk to me about. But it’s my job to talk to you, to listen. And I’m responding. The President didn’t have knowledge of this story. The White House didn’t have any involvement in the story. And beyond that, it’s ongoing litigation that doesn’t involve anybody in the building, and so I’d refer you to the parties that it does.
Q Sarah, I have two questions for you, because I want to follow up on something you said yesterday, after my first question. You were on that flight back from the G20. Did you advise the President to be truthful in that statement that he was helping —
MS. SANDERS: I wasn’t part of the conversation regarding the statement.
Q You were not in the room at the time, or in the area at the time?
MS. SANDERS: I was in the air. I was on the plane, but I wasn’t part of the conversation, so I can’t speak to anything beyond that part.
Q Yesterday, you said that the President was joking about his comments, putting suspects’ heads — telling police officers they shouldn’t cover their heads in putting them in the car. Was he making a joke about police brutality?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. I think you guys are jumping and trying to make something out of nothing. He was simply making a comment, making a joke. And it was nothing more than that.
Q Sarah, what’s so funny?
Q What’s funny about that, Sarah?
Q Should he apologize for that joke?
Q On that same issue, the head of the DEA wrote immediately after the President made those remarks — to officers of the DEA — telling them to disregard them, and saying he had an obligation to speak up when something wrong happened.
MS. SANDERS: It wasn’t a directive. It was a joke. There’s a very big difference.
Q So why was that not clear —
MS. SANDERS: Olivier.
Q Has the President signed the Russia, North Korea, and Iran sanctions bill?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, has he signed it?
MS. SANDERS: He has not. But as we put out a statement earlier this week, he will. And we’ll let you know when the details and final plan —
Q What’s the delay? What’s the delay here? You guys have had this since Friday. What’s holding him back?
MS. SANDERS: There’s nothing holding him back. There’s a review process, a legal process. They’re going through that, and he’ll sign the bill and we’ll let you guys know.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I had two questions. The first is, there’s a really interesting story out, just before the briefing began, by Defense One, talking about Air Force One, and it says that the U.S. Air Force has found an alternative to get the price down, as President Trump wanted, and that was to buy a pair of Boeing 747 jetliners that were abandoned by a bankrupt Russian airline. Can you verify the accuracy of the story? Do you know if that’s correct?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t at this time. That’s something I’d have to check into and get back to you.
Q Okay. And then I also wanted just sort of an update on the new Chief of Staff, General Kelly. Can you talk to us sort of, in broad strokes, about the calls and outreach that he’s made so far to leadership in Congress, folks outside of Congress, any governors, that sort of thing? Can you talk to us broadly about the message that he’s sending and the people that he’s talking to both inside and outside of the administration?
MS. SANDERS: I know he’s spoken to a number of members of Congress as well as a large number of individuals within the staff. He’s taking time to get to know everyone here in the building that he hasn’t met previously through his other role. And working through setting up new processes and kind of setting the tone, I think, for a White House that, under his leadership, will be very focused on the President’s agenda, as we’ve been doing the last six months. We’re going to continue on that track and we’re going to do that under General Kelly, and we’re very excited to work alongside him in that process.
Q Sarah, on the President’s agenda — and I’m just sitting here and I heard you list off a list of reasons of why you think that the media should be focusing on Democrats and not the President. And not to belabor an obvious point, but Hillary Clinton is certainly not in the Oval Office; Donald Trump is. And there seems to be a trust deficit that is being created with some on Capitol Hill.
And I want to tell you what Lindsay Graham said this morning on “The Today Show.” He says, “If this is true” — this Washington Post reporting — “it was a bad decision by the President, which will make us ask more questions. When you get caught in a lie about one thing, that makes it hard to say we’ll just let the other stuff go.” Is this what is hurting the President’s legislative agenda, this credibility issue on the Hill?
MS. SANDERS: I think what’s hurting the legislative agenda is Congress’s inability to get things passed.
Q Can you elaborate on that a little bit, Sarah? Because clearly there is a concern from some Republicans that the President is not always being as truthful as he could be. How does he plan to address that?
MS. SANDERS: I think by being truthful and transparent as he has every single day.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I’d like to return to North Korea. With North Korea continuing to escalate nuclear tensions, can we expect any actions from the administration to ratchet up pressure of actions on China?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve said, we’re not going to broadcast movements on things like that before they take place. But we’re going to continue to work with our allies, continue to work with our partners. And again, the goals are to stop the nuclear program, stop the missiles, stop the aggression with North Korea. We’re going to continue looking at the best options and ways to accomplish that.
Q Can you say what some of those options might be?
MS. SANDERS: Not at this time.
John. Sorry, John Gizzi, you had your hand up when I first went back —
Q Thank you, Sarah.
MS. SANDERS: I’m happy to go to somebody else named John.
Q You said yesterday that — I think you said yesterday that there would be no reshuffle in the Cabinet, meaning General Sessions would not move over to the Homeland Security. Is that correct?
MS. SANDERS: Correct.
Q And does that also mean that Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the vice-chairman of the President’s Commission on Electoral Integrity, would stay in his position and not be considered for Homeland Security?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of any movements for him. But as always, when we have a personnel announcement, I’d be happy to share it with you.
Jon Decker. Since we’re in the Johns —
Q Thank you, Sarah. I was hoping just to follow up on North Korea. I was hoping you could clarify the administration’s message that it has for North Korea. The other day, the President said, when asked about North Korea, “We will take care of them. We will take care of everything.” And a little bit ago, the Secretary of State, Secretary of State Tillerson, said that the U.S. is trying to convince North Korea that the U.S. is not your enemy. So which one is it? Is the President focused on North Korea as an adversary, or is Secretary Tillerson correct that the U.S. is trying to send this message that the U.S. is not North Korea’s enemy?
MS. SANDERS: Look, like I just said a few minutes ago, the big priorities here, which we’ve laid out — I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve done it just today — is to stop the nuclear program, stop the missiles, stop the aggression. That’s what we’re focused on in regards to North Korea, and we’re going to continue pushing on that, and continue working with our allies and partners to accomplish that and do what is necessary to achieve it.
Q Are they an adversary? Does the President —
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think in some ways they get to decide by the actions that they take. If they want to stop their nuclear program, stop the game, stop the missiles, stop the aggression, then I think we may be able to find ways to move forward. But those are the priorities of this administration.
Q Sarah, thanks. Secretary Mnuchin had a meeting on the Hill this morning with Senate leaders about the debt ceiling. Apparently, according to reports, they didn’t get anywhere. Obviously this has the potential to affect the stock market rally that the President is so pleased with.
MS. SANDERS: I think the whole country is pleased with it.
Q Yes, that’s true. Do you have any reason to believe at this point that you’re going to get the debt ceiling issue done by the end of September?
MS. SANDERS: Look, to ensure that we have robust economic growth and promote fiscal discipline, the Trump administration believes it’s important to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible. Over the past two decades, members of Congress and Presidents from both parties have raised the debt ceiling 15 times, and we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that full faith and credit of the United States government.
MS. SANDERS: April.
Q Thank you.
MS. SANDERS: Since you said my name so politely. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you, Sarah.
MS. SANDERS: Somewhat sarcastic.
Q Me being sarcastic? No, never.
MS. SANDERS: Go ahead, April.
Q All right. Sarah, when it comes to this joke that the President said on Friday, you have many organizations — you have police organizations, the NAACP, and the American citizens share they’re upset about this. Could there be an apology from the President? And what does he view as reasonable when he’s not joking, when it comes to use of force from police?
MS. SANDERS: I would have to ask on that specific question.
Q But do you think that the President is remorseful for what he said because of the outcry from Friday?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President supports our law enforcement and he supports the protection of the citizens of this country, and he wants to empower our law enforcement to be able to do their job. I don’t think there’s anything beyond that.
Q Thanks, Sarah. First, following up on Olivier’s question, he mentioned that there’s a legal review of this legislation, but the White House has already said that the President will sign it. So what is the nature of that review, if presumably there was some review before putting out that statement?
MS. SANDERS: As with any very particularly complex piece of legislation like this is, there’s a legal review. And once we sign that, we’ll work through and put more of the details of that process out.
Q And separately, one more for you. Last month, the President delivered a warning to Congress a couple of times not to take vacation in August. What is the status of the President’s August plans? Does he plan to leave Washington? For how long? And what will he be doing during that timeframe?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll continue to keep you guys updated on his August schedule as those details are finalized.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The Coast Guard Commandant says that he won’t turn his back on transgender troops, which would seem to preclude adherence to the President’s directive on Twitter. Does the White House consider that he’s refusing to follow an order?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t heard those comments or had a chance to speak with any about it, but I know that the goal is to work with all of the relevant departments, primarily the Department of Defense, to lawfully implement that new policy.
Q Sarah, you just told April that you would have to ask the President if an apology would be appropriate. Are you saying you will ask him and get back to us?
MS. SANDERS: No, I said I would have to in order to answer that question.
Q Well, could you please?
Q Would you?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll let you know if I do.
Q Also, on General Kelly — you said yesterday that everybody is now reporting to the President through him. Is that an accurate characterization?
MS. SANDERS: Right, like I said that General Kelly has full authority in the White House.
Q So does that mean nobody can wander in to the White House on their own? Is he going to post somebody outside the Oval Office?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think anybody can wander into the White House on their own without Secret Service stepping in.
Q Excuse me — into the Oval Office. Can his daughter? Can his son-in-law? Can Steven Bannon wander into the Oval Office without —
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think anybody just wanders into the Oval Office. Look, this is the White House. He’s the President of the United States of America, and there are processes —
Q But it’s pretty informal here normally, right? I mean, people talk to him. They don’t wait to get approval to talk to him.
MS. SANDERS: Look, General Kelly is going to work with the entire team as he’s been doing over the last couple days. He’s done a great job of sitting down and talking to individuals about the needs that they have, the conversations, and putting a structure in place. There’s nothing abnormal about that.
Q Can top staff talk to the President without the approval of General Kelly?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know that I would say “approval” is the correct word, but I certainly don’t think it’s like we’re getting permission slips signed. But I do think that there is something to having a structured process in order — just to make things run more smoothly at the White House.
Q What’s the President’s reaction to two opposition leaders being jailed in Venezuela?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, can you say that again?
Q What is the President’s reaction to the two opposition leaders being jailed in Venezuela now after the sanctions from yesterday?
MS. SANDERS: Overnight, the regime of the Venezuelan dictator Maduro detained two leading opposition figures following its outrageous seizure of power through sham elections this weekend. The Vice President spoke with Mr. Lopez just last week, and he and Mr. Ledezma are political prisoners held unjustly by the Maduro regime. The United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship, and we hold Maduro personally responsible for the health and safety of both men and any other seized by his dictatorship.
Q Is the President already considering increasing the sanctions and perhaps going after their oil exports?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to broadcast. As Secretary Mnuchin said yesterday, we’ll consider all options and keep you guys updated.
Q On healthcare, you said earlier that what’s keeping the President’s agenda from going is Congress and their votes. The President has said he wants to see healthcare done before anything else, and yet that’s not the message we’ve seen from the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the last few days. Can you explain the discrepancy between the President and senior Republican leadership on the Hill when it comes to what should be done next?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve said before, we can do a lot of different things at one time. We’re continuing to focus —
Q But they’re (inaudible) this things first.
MS. SANDERS: We’re continuing to try to push a new healthcare system. We know that Obamacare is failing. We know that inaction is simply not okay. We want to continue to make that a priority. We want to work with Congress to do that. We may look for other ways to improve healthcare in the meantime.
We’re also continuing to focus on tax reform. We’ve been doing tax reform listening sessions for the last month. We’ve had countless meetings with members of Congress, other organizations, talking about tax reform, infrastructure. We’re going to continue to focus on all of those priorities and move them forward.
Q Will the President support Congress taking CSR payments out of his hands? There’s been some suggestion, again, among senior Republicans that this is appropriate to do given the President’s threats to stop these payments. They’re saying they should be taken out of the executive branch.
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to get back to you on that.
Q Can you, please? Because this is something that’s being discussed pretty aggressively on Capitol Hill. John Thune has talked about it. Orrin Hatch has talked about it.
MS. SANDERS: I’m happy to get back to you about it.
MS. SANDERS: Peter.
Q Sarah, very quickly on Seth Rich. Does the President believe the predicate about original Fox News reporting that Seth Rich was responsible for the release of DNC emails to WikiLeaks?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure, Peter.
Thanks, guys. We’ve got a small business event coming up shortly, and hopefully you’ll all tune in.