For the second time in four days, the White House barred television cameras from a media briefing Thursday and prohibited live audio broadcasts. Press secretary Sean Spicer also skipped the session, deploying his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to answer questions instead.
Off-camera briefings are becoming a regular occurrence in the Trump White House, especially on big news days. (Senate Republicans released their health-care plan Thursday, and the president finally said that he did not record conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey.)
In keeping with a promise we made Monday, The Fix has annotated a transcript of Thursday's briefing, since it could not be seen on TV. We'll continue the practice when White House spokesmen go off camera. To view an annotation, click on the yellow, highlighted text.
SANDERS: Good afternoon.
This morning, the Senate released the discussion draft of its health-care bill. The president is pleased to see the process moving forward swiftly in Congress, and he looks forward to see a finalized bill on his desk so that we can finally repeal and replace Obamacare before it completely collapses.
Just yesterday, another insurer announced that it's pulling out of Obamacare exchanges. Anthem is leaving the exchanges in Indiana, the state in which the company was actually born and is currently headquartered, and also in Wisconsin.
Finally, I want to welcome Alex Pfeiffer to his first White House briefing. Alex is young, so he may need some help from a few of his colleagues to help him with this process.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I'll take your questions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
I'm just curious about the president's revelation by way of Twitter that he has no knowledge of any tapes, didn't have any tapes, didn't have any possession of any tapes.
What can you tell the American people about why he decided to, sort of, make the inference at least at some point that maybe there would be tapes?
SANDERS: Well, look, I think the president's statement via Twitter today is extremely clear. I don't have anything to add beyond the statement itself.
QUESTION: Can I follow up really quickly …
QUESTION: … on the wall?
I was at the rally last night. The president seemed to get great reaction to the idea that the wall was moving forward. And he mentioned the possibility of solar as a means to not only pay for the wall itself, but also to enhance the wall.
Can you sort of help me unpack that idea? Is this something that he's been kicking around for quite some time? He said it was the first time he's made it publicly known.
SANDERS: I think it's something he's considering. Certainly nothing final, but just an idea that he is considering and reviewing. Nothing more to add at this point.
QUESTION: I have a health-care question, but I just want to follow up on Kevin's questions on the tapes situation.
I get that the tweet is speaking for itself, but I'm curious why it took so long — 41 days — for this to be laid to rest, and whether the president is recording any Oval Office conversations.
SANDERS: You guys asked for an answer. He gave you one. He said he would have it to you by the end of this week, which he did. And beyond the timing of that, I can't really speak anything further.
QUESTION: And on the Oval Office recordings?
SANDERS: I'm not aware of anything. I think his statement here is pretty clear.
QUESTION: But I'm asking more generally, just not specifically …
SANDERS: Again, not that I'm aware of, Hallie.
QUESTION: So no Oval Office recordings that you're aware of.
SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.
QUESTION: Then on health care, I just want to know a couple of things on that.
Is the president confident that he will have something to sign in the next few weeks?
SANDERS: I don't think we're are as focused on the timeline as we are on the final product.
We're looking for the best bill possible. And we're going to continue being part of technical assistance and providing that with both House and Senate members as we work to get the best bill we can.
QUESTION: And just on that final product, the president — the Senate bill by — announced so far cuts Medicaid, it doesn't look like it will cut deductibles for folks. Does that have enough heart? Does the president think that is a bill that is not mean?
SANDERS: I haven't had that conversation.
But I do know that he made a statement earlier that said this was a negotiation. And so he's going to continue that process with both House and Senate members and his administration until we get the best bill that we can. And that'll be the one that he signs.
QUESTION: He's open to changes?
QUESTION: Sarah, what was the president doing with this?
I mean, he let it go on for 41 days, as Hallie referred to. He — he — that — that tweet, 41 days ago seemed to be, you know, very kind of ominous message to Comey — “You better hope there are no tapes.” And he was asked repeatedly during the intervening weeks whether the tapes existed. You were asked many times. Sean was asked.
What — why — why the game? Why — what was he — what was he doing?
SANDERS: I don't think there was a game.
Again, he's answered the question. He gave a timeline and a frame that … which he would, and he did that. He said by the end of this week and he's done that.
QUESTION: But do you have a sense for what — what was behind the original suggestion from him 41 days ago that there may be tapes?
SANDERS: Look, I think it was pretty clear in that original statement that he hoped, for his sake — and that was, I think, the very intention. And he's laid out his position on whether he personally was involved in that in his tweet today.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
Back to the original tweet, did the president intend to threaten James Comey with that tweet?
SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. I don't think so.
QUESTION: And — and so why — again, why was he compelled for the deadline time to be this week to clear it up?
SANDERS: I mean, that was — has been laid out I believe also by Congress that — that wanted an answer by the end of this week.
QUESTION: Sarah, if I can, the tweet ultimately we know, according to James Comey, led him to share the memos publicly, which led to the hiring of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, which ultimately led to the reports that the president himself is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice. Does the president regret the tweet?
SANDERS: I don't think so.
QUESTION: (inaudible) does he — he said — you can't say whether there's any Oval Office recordings, but he did say that, “I did not make and do not have any such recording.”
Did he ever have recordings of conversations with James Comey?
SANDERS: Again, not that I'm aware of. I …
QUESTION: Then let me ask you about health care, if I can quickly.
On health care, the president said when he first became a candidate, after coming down the escalator, he tweeted: “The Republicans who want to cut Social Security and Medicaid are wrong. A robust economy will make America great again.”
So if cutting Medicaid was wrong when he was a candidate, why is it right in the new Republican Senate bill?
SANDERS: I don't believe that the president has specifically weighed in that it's right to cut Medicaid.
I know one of the big parts of discussion is giving states flexibility. And again, the president hasn't weighed in specifically on any specific measure in this bill. And as he said earlier today, this is a negotiation between the House and the Senate and we're going to play a part in that.
QUESTION: To be clear, does the president still believe there should be no …
SANDERS: I'm sorry, guys.
QUESTION: Does the president still believe …
SANDERS: One at a time.
QUESTION: Does the president still believe, as he did as a candidate, that there should be no cuts to Medicaid?
SANDERS: I haven't had a specific conversation to see if there is an update to that. But I do think that he wants to protect that as much as possible.
QUESTION: (inaudible) White House be doing with the Senate as this health-care bill moves forward? You mentioned technical assistance. What does that entail?
SANDERS: I think — I know members of OMB, Treasury and certainly members of the HHS and senior staff have been involved in the process. They're going to continue to do that.
This has been one of those things where, from the very beginning, we wanted all the stakeholders involved, and we're going to continue to do that until we get the best piece of legislation.
QUESTION: Will the president be involved or is he going to wait for the conference committee (inaudible)?
SANDERS: I — I know he's been involved by having members of his administration — I think it would be hard to deny the fact that they're an extension of the administration, when you have Cabinet secretaries and senior-level staffers that are in meetings and conversations regarding the legislation.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
Twelve days ago, the president announced a press conference in two weeks on his entire ISIS strategy. Can we expect a press conference in the coming days?
SANDERS: I'll have to get back to you on a specific date for when that might be.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.
I wanted to ask you about the reaction from the left that we've seen this week.
SANDERS: I'm sure it's friendly.
QUESTION: Well, our microphones caught a woman who was dragged off from McConnell's office this morning. She was screaming, “My child is going to die and my family is going to die and they don't give a damn about it.”
Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said this week that Democrats are going to “lie down on the train tracks” to stop this bill from passing.
What do you make of all that? What's your reaction to it?
SANDERS: I certainly think that not just Republicans, but I think any American would certainly not support something that allows a child to die.
And the goal is, again, to look for the best health care possible that actually provides care; not just gives insurance but actually provides care. That's been a goal for the administration on the front end and we're looking for ways to do that.
Right now, we know Obamacare is not sustainable. It is literally collapsing under itself. Providers are pulling out every single day out of states. We are down to multiple counties that don't have providers.
And we are working day in, day out to make sure we have the best piece of legislation possible.
If Democrats really cared, they would try to be involved in the process. They said from day one that they didn't want to be in the conversation if it had anything to do with repealing and replacing Obamacare. I think that it's sad, that they've chosen to play partisan politics instead of trying to have a seat at the table.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.
The intelligence community has concluded that the DNC hack was part of a Russian plot to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. I'm wondering after the president's tweet this morning, why does he continue to dispute that finding and call that hack a hoax?
And then a follow-up, if I may.
SANDERS: I believe that the president said even back in January — and I'll read the statement from then — that he “thinks it's a disgrace — thinks it's an absolute disgrace. As far as hacking, I think it was Russia but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
I think he's made it clear and been consistent that while everyone agrees the result of the election wasn't influenced, he thinks that it probably was Russia.
And I think that, regardless, President Trump has made it clear that we have to protect the integrity of the electoral system. That's one of the reasons he's a strong advocate for voter ID laws and why he's also put in place a voter election commission — integrity commission chaired by the vice president, which I think shows the level of importance he's placed on that, to make sure that the integrity of all of our elections, particularly moving forward, are as sound and correct as possible.
QUESTION: So then — thank you — just a broader follow-up on that.
So, like I said, this morning, he called the hack a hoax. He hasn't accepted the popular vote tallies. You guys have been touting jobs numbers that he used to call fake. You won't tell us where he stands on climate science.
So I'm wondering why did the president choose to accept certain facts, but dispute and reject others?
SANDERS: I'm not aware that he accepts certain facts. I think we accept all the facts.
QUESTION: … popular vote totals, climate science. You still haven't told us where he stands on …
SANDERS: Look, the president won the election. I don't know why we have to continue debating this. The Democrats lost because they didn't have a message. They had a poor candidate. We had a message. And the president won. I'm not really sure what fact we're disputing here. There's only one winner and he was it.
QUESTION: Yeah, going back to (inaudible) started. Is the president concerned that surveillance is being conducted against him at the White House?
SANDERS: I don't know specifically if there's a direct concern. I do know that he's concerned with the number of leaks that do come out of our intelligence community. I think all America should be concerned with that.
QUESTION: But he did make clear in that, clear that he didn't have any recordings, but he raised the prospect that somebody else might have them.
SANDERS: Okay. Again, I think that it's very clear what he meant there. But as far as surveillance …
SANDERS: I wouldn't know, Jeff.
QUESTION: Two questions, first on health care if I can. Since the president won't be weighing in specifically on any of the details of the Senate bill, can you help explain what his role will be exactly during at least the Senate phase of the process? Will he be whipping for votes to pass the Senate bill even if he doesn't necessarily agree with everything that's in it, just to try to advance the process along?
SANDERS: We'll keep you updated as his involvement takes place. Again, right now I know that he's got a large number of members of his administration that are involved in the process and continuing those conversations.
QUESTION: And I have another question, if I can — the president's meeting today with the International Olympic Committee. Can you talk a little bit about what that meeting is for? And will he use it as a chance to lobby for Los Angeles's bid for the Olympics?
SANDERS: I know he's certainly supportive of the committee, and we plan to have a readout after the meeting. I don't want to get ahead of that before it takes place.
QUESTION: (inaudible) or the (inaudible)?
SANDERS: I mean, obviously the committee itself. And again, we'll have a readout for you after the meeting takes place. I won't get ahead of that.
QUESTION: Sarah, yeah, listen, I want to, if I could (inaudible), I want to go back to what Jeff was asking you a moment ago. I know you said his tweet is clear. But it talks about recently reported electronic surveillance intercepts unmasking. Is that activity that is being carried out by the CIA, the FBI or other U.S. law enforcement agencies? Is that what his reference is to?
SANDERS: I think those are questions you'd have to ask those law enforcement agencies, whether they're engaging in those activities.
QUESTION: The president tweeted this. The president is the one who's actually put this information out.
SANDERS: I — I think it's — there's public record that talks about surveillance, that talks about unmasking. We know those practices take place. I think if you're asking about specific instances, you'd have to refer to those agencies.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on China? The president tweeted obviously the other day that the Chinese had — had failed to change the situation with respect to North Korea. I just wonder, in light of that, given how he had put China at the center of his North Korea strategy, what the next steps are. How does the U.S. bring pressure to bear on North Korea, if the Chinese are not willing to help?
SANDERS: Look, I think the president's been extremely clear on this process. Of course, he hopes to work with China and continue to work with them to put pressure on North Korea. But if that doesn't work, then the president's been clear that he will do whatever it takes to protect America.
QUESTION: Any details on what that would be?
SANDERS: The president's never going to, you know, outline his strategy in a public way, but I think he's been clear that he would certainly do what it takes to protect American citizens.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Sarah. Two questions.
First, on health care. The Senate wants to vote in less than a week, or in about a week. Can you say whether the president supports the bill as it is right now? Because we don't know how many changes can be made in the course of a week.
SANDERS: Again, I think he wants to bring the stakeholders to the table; have those conversations. And we'll get back to you as we go through that process. But I think right now, we're in a negotiation process.
QUESTION: Does the president think that the process on health care is moving too fast? (inaudible) wants to take time and talk to people? I mean, they're talking about having a vote next week. I mean, there's going to be like …
SANDERS: I mean, we've been talking about reforming health care for a number of years. I don't think it's moving too fast when it's been nearly eight years.
QUESTION: (inaudible) health care (inaudible) what it is now (inaudible) president's desk. Will the president support a bill that funds Planned Parenthood?
SANDERS: I'm not sure. I'd have to get back to you on that question.
QUESTION: (inaudible) wouldn't support a bill (inaudible)?
SANDERS: He has. I would have to get back to you on a specific totality of the bill.
QUESTION: (inaudible) the bill allows the use of health-care tax credits to buy coverage for abortion. Would he support that?
SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of, but again, I think it would have to be in the context of the larger legislation. I can't speak to a hypothetical (inaudible) one piece of the bill.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask some more about the China question (inaudible). Can you tell us more? When you said the president will do what it takes with regards to North Korea, so that would mean a military option. Can you tell us more …
SANDERS: I think he's been — said all along that we're not taking any options off the table, but we're not going to broadcast what those might be.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
The intelligence community has been pretty unified (inaudible) that the Russian interference in the election was a very real and serious issue. Yet the president just called it a, quote/unquote, “Dem hoax.”
Does he believe that members of the intelligence community are colluding with the Democrats or did collude with the Democrats? And what would he do about that?
SANDERS: I believe the — the reference in the hoax is about the fact that they're trying to delegitimize his win in the election process and less about the hack itself.
I think he's said several times now that he believes that Russia was part of it, but he — also some of those same members have said that they don't think it influenced the election.
And I think that's what a lot of this process is about. It's about trying to make excuses for why Democrats lost. And the president, I think, has been pretty clear on where he stands with that.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.
(inaudible) questions about the president's tweet earlier to the various intelligence agencies. Is the president accusing elements of the U.S. government of wiretapping the Oval Office?
SANDERS: That's not what I said. I said if he was asking about specific instances, he would have to ask them.
QUESTION: So specifically, does the president believe that he's being surveilled in the Oval Office?
SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.
QUESTION: Why is he tweeting about it?
SANDERS: Because he was asked if he had tapes and he's answering that question. So.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
A question and a follow-up.
In his speech last night, the president said that several of the major news corporations are not telling the truth to the American people. Are you willing to name any of those corporations? And also are you keeping a list and following corporations that may not be telling the truth?
SANDERS: I think there are quite a few instances where there have been false reports out there. And I would be happy, when I'm not standing up here, to help provide a list to you, John.
QUESTION: All right.
And the other thing is, are you keeping this list ongoing?
SANDERS: I — I don't have, like, a folder on my computer for it. But I certainly think we've got some knowledge of very specific instances that have taken place.
QUESTION: Are you going to release them?
SANDERS: I'll let you know.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot, John — Sarah. Will you give a heads up …
SANDERS: We look — we look pretty different, but you know …
QUESTION: It's off-camera.
SANDERS: I mean, hey, John, if — hey, John, if you're looking for instances of fake news, there's a good one for you.
I'm Sarah, so …
QUESTION: Were you given a heads up about the president's tweet?
QUESTION: And was the general counsel given an opportunity to vet what the president tweeted out?
SANDERS: I'm not sure. I'd have to double-check on that.
QUESTION: Sarah, the president talked last night about Governor Branstad going to China to become the ambassador.
Is it consistent with the president's pledge to drain the swamp that he's giving so many of these first wave of ambassadorships to political supporters and campaign donors?
SANDERS: Look, I think it's pretty traditional that you would have somebody supportive of you and your agenda to go out and be an ambassador to speak on behalf of the administration.
And Terry Branstad is somebody who has, I think, some of the best qualifications that you could have to send there. He's got a personal relationship with senior-level members of the Chinese administration, as well as a very strong understanding of trade practices given his background. And I think he's a perfect fit for that role.
QUESTION: Is legal status for DACA beneficiaries on the table as the White House conducts its review of the program?
SANDERS: As of right now, that's still under review. And I don't have any announcements on the specifics of the program at this time.
QUESTION: Bloomberg reported that the president first raised the prospect of tapes strategically to make sure that Comey told the truth.
Is that your understanding of the president's motivation for tweeting about it? And does he feel it was effective?
SANDERS: I'm sorry. I can't (inaudible).
QUESTION: The whole thing? Okay.
SANDERS: Yeah, sorry. It's hard to hear.
QUESTION: Bloomberg first reported that the president first raised the prospect of tapes strategically to make sure that Comey told the truth.
Is that your understanding of the president's motives for tweeting that? And does he feel it was effective?
SANDERS: I certainly think that the president would hope that the former director would tell the truth. But I think that it was more about, you know, raising the question of doubt in general, so.