White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was late to the daily news briefing on Tuesday. Not a little late, either; she was nearly 90 minutes late. She never seems particularly eager to engage with the media, and recognizing that this was the first briefing following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last week — and the first following erroneous and argumentative tweets from President Trump over the weekend — her eagerness was probably even lower than usual.
Sure enough, within two questions, Sanders got into a heated exchange with ABC News’s Jonathan Karl in which he pressed her on Trump’s response to Russian interference in the 2016 election and to the mass murder in Parkland.
The FBI-Parkland tweet
Karl began by raising this tweet from the president.
On Friday, the FBI acknowledged having missed a tip about the alleged shooter in Parkland, Nikolas Cruz. By Saturday, that failure was used by Trump as a way of criticizing the agency’s work investigating Russian interference alongside special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Here is the beginning of the exchange between Karl and Sanders.
KARL: First, a clarification from some of the president’s tweets over the weekend. The president doesn’t really think that the FBI failed to stop the Parkland shooter because it was too involved with the Russia investigation, does he?
SANDERS: I think he was speaking not necessarily that that is the cause. I think we all have to be aware that the cause of this is that of a deranged individual that made a decision to take the lives of 17 other people. That is the responsibility of the shooter; certainly not the responsibility of anybody else.
Well, that is not what Trump said, as Karl pointed out.
KARL: So did he mistweet when he said that? Because he was pretty direct. He says, “This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russia collusion.”
SANDERS: I think he is making the point that we would like our FBI agencies to not be focused on something that is clearly a hoax in terms of investigating the Trump campaign and its involvement.
KARL: You just agreed that the evidence is there, that the Russians interfered with our election.
SANDERS: I said that the Trump campaign interfered and colluded with them.
The first question Sanders faced was from NBC’s Kristen Welker, who inquired about whether Trump now accepted that Russia had indeed interfered in the election. Sanders claimed Trump had repeatedly acknowledged that interference, though she declined to note Trump had also regularly called the investigation a hoax in broad strokes and had regularly tried to raise questions about the consensus of intelligence agencies that Russia had attempted to influence the election.
Sanders’s response skips over the obvious point: Trump clearly said the FBI “missed many signals” from Cruz and the agency was “spending too much time trying to prove Russia collusion with the Trump campaign.” He left the connection vague enough to be deniable, as he does, but the point of his tweet was obvious, as it often is.
What is more, the investigation of collusion that is part of Mueller’s mandate has seen results. Hours before the news briefing began, the special counsel’s team announced its fourth guilty plea stemming from its investigation. As of writing, Mueller’s team has secured admissions of guilt from former Trump campaign advisers Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos as well as from Richard Pinedo, who ran a company that provided illicit access to American bank accounts, and from Alex van der Zwaan, a London-based attorney. In addition, it has filed charges against two other former campaign staff, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and 13 Russian individuals who worked to influence the 2016 election through fake social-media accounts.
How much the FBI was involved in those charges and pleas is not clear, but it is clearly the case that the Mueller investigation broadly has not been fruitless.
How Trump has responded
Karl transitioned to another question that arose after Friday’s indictment against the Russian social media trolls: Has the president done anything to prevent future election interference? (Trump has rarely raised the issue in public, never saying anything specific about a response.)
KARL: But the investigation is obviously about what Russia did. It raises the question now that you’ve said the president agrees, the national security adviser says the evidence is incontrovertible. What is the president going to do about it? What is he specifically doing about the fact that Russia interfered with our election and has every intention, we are told, of doing it again. What is he doing about it?
SANDERS: Look, just last week the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with a number of relevant stakeholders. They are discussing this process and going through and looking every single day at the best ways forward. Everybody wants to blame this on the Trump administration. Let’s not forget that this happened under the Obama administration.
The interference did indeed take place during the administration of Barack Obama, but there are some significant asterisks that should be applied there.
First, the Obama administration took the highly unusual step of offering a public warning a month before Election Day about Russia’s attempt to compromise the election. That statement was released on Oct. 7 — the same day as the “Access Hollywood” tape and the start of WikiLeaks releasing emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
In addition, as The Washington Post reported in December 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed challenging the Russians publicly out of apparent concern it would influence the election. (Last month former vice president Joe Biden confirmed this reporting.) After the election, the Obama administration unveiled a slew of new sanctions against Russia. (Flynn’s guilty plea to Mueller stemmed from his lying to the FBI about a discussion he’d had with Russia’s ambassador about those sanctions.)
Karl asked what Trump had done to Russia in response to the interference. Sanders replied the administration had met with local election officials and vendors about election and election-machine security. She said it had also been a subject of conversation with other heads of state and the administration was working with its allies.
The exchange continued.
SANDERS: President Trump and the administration have made it clear that interference in our elections will have consequences and we’re going to continue to impose consequences in response to Russian cyberattacks. Just last week we called out Russia by name; it was one of the first times that you’ve seen something like that take place. We’re going to continue doing things like that.
KARL: The president hasn’t even criticized Vladimir Putin about this. He hasn’t even called out Putin. He criticized Obama; he criticized the FBI. He didn’t even criticize Vladimir Putin in the wake of this development.
SANDERS: He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined. He’s imposed sanctions. He’s taken away properties. He’s rebuilt our military. He has done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia. Just last week there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days and another way that this president was tough on Russia.
What that last incident is is not clear. Sanders’s initial statement about Trump being tougher than Obama, though, seems like a stretch. The Trump administration has refused to implement new sanctions approved by Congress aimed specifically at punishing the country for its election interference. The properties seized by the government were a response to Russia’s expulsion of diplomatic staff after the passage of the aforementioned sanctions. Responding to Welker, Sanders also noted the military expansion and the export of natural gas to Europe. She also noted the Trump administration had not rescinded Obama’s sanctions.
(For what it is worth, Obama expelled 35 Russians and seized two Russian compounds shortly before he left office in response to election interference. Last summer, The Post reported that the Trump administration at one point privately considered giving back those properties.)
So to summarize, Trump’s response to Russian interference in our elections was:
- Meetings with officials and vendors to discuss election security.
- Talking to other foreign leaders about interference.
- Calling out Russia by name.
More broadly, he has been tough on Russia by:
- Taking away properties from Russia in response to their expelling our diplomatic staff.
- Not reversing Obama’s sanctions.
- Bulking up the military.
- Helping to arm Ukraine.
- Exporting energy to Europe. “I can assure you, Russia is not excited about that,” Sanders told Welker.
Sanders is often in the difficult position of defending statements by Trump that are hard to defend. On Tuesday, after a hiatus of nearly a week in the daily news briefings, she found herself in just such a position.
No wonder she was not eager to get to the briefing room.