For the second day in a row on Wednesday, a briefing scheduled to be led by White House press secretary Sean Spicer was run instead by deputy secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And for the seventh time in the past nine briefings, TV cameras and live audio broadcasts were banned.
The Fix has annotated a transcript of the portion of the session during which Sanders spoke and answered questions, as it could not be seen on TV. (Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tom Homan and U.S. Attorney John Huber also spoke and took questions.)
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. First off, before we get started, I want bring up Tom Homan, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and John Huber, the United States Attorney from Utah, to tell you about two upcoming pieces of immigration legislation that will be voted on in the House later this week. And after they finish, as always, I will come back and take some more questions.
[HOMAN AND HUBER]
SANDERS: Thank you, guys, very much. Just to be clear, I know it’s been asked a couple of times about their availability to be on camera. I believe the plan is that they will go to the sticks shortly after we conclude and be happy to take a few of your questions on camera. My guess is if they had stood here, though, you probably wouldn’t have covered them like they were Secretary Perry, Secretary Shulkin, when they opened the briefing just a few days — yesterday. A couple of weeks ago, multiple networks didn’t cover those openings, so hopefully you guys will take the opportunity at the sticks and be sure to cover that.
Obviously this issue is something that the President spoke about very passionately on the campaign trail. And given the fact that this legislation has 80 percent approval around the country, the President looks forward to seeing Congressman Goodlatte’s bills pass with bipartisan support.
In regards to the rest of the president’s schedule for today, he continued Energy Week this morning by hosting a roundtable with tribal, state, and local leaders. As Secretary Perry told you all yesterday, the Trump administration is looking to create an energy-dominant America. An energy-dominant America will bring even more hard-working Americans into the high-skill, well-paying jobs and careers the energy sector offers. When we can export American energy to markets around the world, the president will also be able to use it as an important tool to increase our global leadership and influence, advancing our global agenda and helping to keep our citizens safe.
Before I take your questions, I wanted to highlight Samsung’s announcement this morning that it will be investing nearly $400 million in a new plant in South Carolina that is expected to create nearly 1,000 local jobs by 2020. This is big news for the residents of Newberry County. As Secretary Ross said this morning, it’s another sign that President Trump — America is becoming an even stronger destination for global businesses to look and grow.
With that, I will take your questions. Kristen.
Q: Sarah, thanks so much. I want to just be clear on where the administration stands right now on Syria. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said earlier today, “I can tell you due to the President’s action, we did not see an incident.”
SANDERS: I’m sorry, we did not see —
Q: “We did not see an incident.” Is the sense that the threat from Bashar al Assad at least right now is over? That he’s no longer planning an imminent chemical weapons attack?
SANDERS: Look, I can’t get into specific intelligence matters. I think that the action that the U.S. took was successful.
Q: And did the President ever consider taking preemptive military action, or was that statement the only thing that was on the table this week?
SANDERS: I know that was the action decided. I’m not, of course, going to go into detailed conversations that may have taken place or may not have taken place. I know that there have been, actually, a lot of questions about the timeline regarding Syria. I know several of you in the room have asked about that.
So, Kristen, to be clear, I’d be happy to walk you through, step-by-step, exactly how that process unfolded. There were a lot of stories about the process not working or relevant agencies and people being out of the loop. Those are simply false.
At a regularly scheduled meeting, as I mentioned yesterday, the President was presented with information that indicated the Assad regime was preparing another chemical weapons attack. The President proposed issuing a statement to warn the regime of consequences. Senior administration officials, including NSA McMaster, DNI Director Coats, and DCI Pompeo were present when the statement was initially proposed. They and their teams remained in the loop throughout the drafting process. Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis remained in the loop and were consulted in-person later that day. The military chain of command was also fully aware of the statement as it was being prepared and later released. Secretary Tillerson also spoke to his Russian counterpart, and Lieutenant General Townsend engaged his Russian counterpart in Syria.
The White House staff secretary’s office reviewed the statement and coordinated it with White House leadership. And over the next few hours, the White House staff secretary used its typical coordination process to solicit comments from all relevant departments and agencies. By the time the statement was issued, every relevant department and agency had ample opportunity to provide feedback and input.
As the president stated on April 6, the use of chemical weapons threatens U.S. vital national interest, and the statement was clear and reinforces this message. We have seen indications that the Syrian regime is preparing — was preparing a major chemical attack, and the president warned the regime of consequences should they proceed.
Q: Just one more quick follow-up. Is the use of chemical weapons the president’s only red line when it comes to Syria?
SANDERS: As we’ve said many times before, the president is never going to broadcast the decisions on matters like that.
Q: But he does see that as a red line, the use of chemical weapons?
SANDERS: I think he’s been clear on his position. Kevin.
Q: Thank you, Sarah. I want to ask you about the Kate Steinle announcement here today. Is her father by chance going to be among the guests? I know that — at least when we came out here — I hadn’t seen a list. And secondarily, because you know that story very well, what does it mean to you to see the administration get to this point? And I’d like to ask you a follow-up.
SANDERS: On the first part, I don’t believe that they are here but I will double check and let you know. But as far I’m aware at this point, not that I know of. I think any time we can take a step in protecting Americans, it’s a great step forward in the process.
Q: And also, if I could ask you about — yesterday you had a day to sort of look back. Did you go to the gym and hit the heavy bag? Did you laugh it off? Many of us have covered multiple administrations and you hear worse, you see worse. I’m just wondering what you were thinking and feeling a day later.
SANDERS: I think that the White House had a great day yesterday, Kevin.
Q: Thank you. If the GOP health-care plan fails, is the plan B really to let Obamacare implode? What’s plan B for you guys?
SANDERS: We’re focused on plan A, and that is repealing and replacing Obamacare. The president is fully engaged as — along with his administration in working with House and Senate members to make sure that we repeal and replace Obamacare and put in place a health-care reform system that is sustainable and that works and serves all Americans. And that’s the focus right now, and that’s the only focus.
Q: And I know you’ve seen the criticisms — and part of the criticism that’s been out there is that the president has not been fully engaged on this one. Your response to that, and if you could detail his level of engagement for us.
SANDERS: Again, as I just said, the president’s been very engaged in this process, as have multiple members of his administration. And he’s made a lot of calls directly to members. He had roughly, I think, 46 members of the Senate here yesterday. They had a long and lengthy and very good and productive conversation. We’re going to continue doing that, just like he was with the House. He was engaged and making sure that happened. And he’s somebody — as we’ve said before, I would never underestimate this president, and if he’s committed to getting something done, he will.
Q: Thanks a lot, Sarah. You said yesterday during the briefing that the president was optimistic about getting passage for the Senate health care bill. As you know, there are at least nine Republican senators that have come out opposed to the health-care bill as it’s now structured. What gives the president reason for optimism given the way it looks to most people is perhaps a reason for pessimism?
SANDERS: I think it’s really simple. Look, Republicans have been talking about doing this for a number of years, and they're committed to getting it done. And this is part of the process. This is one of the reasons we've never been focused on a timeline of having to get it done on a certain day, by a certain holiday or anything else. It’s about getting it done right.
And the president, as you know, again, sat down with a lot of those members that you're referencing yesterday. Those same people are committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare and putting something in that actually works. They're committed to doing that, and that's what we're focused on. That's what we're going to make sure happens.
Q: During that Q&A session, that meeting with those Republican senators, did the president hear anything from those opposed to the Senate health-care bill that leads him to believe that they will change their minds as it relates to this legislation?
SANDERS: I think he heard — again, like I just said — what all of Americans have been hearing all of these members talk about is that this is something that has to happen. Obamacare is simply not sustainable. Even Democrats have recognized that. And our path forward is to repeal and replace it. It’s very simple.
Q: Sarah, you mentioned the meeting yesterday with the 46 members of Congress. I believe you said also yesterday that he talked to four on the telephone. We know that Rand Paul was here. He had a meeting with GOP leaders about this. Is there anything else that the president was doing? I ask this specifically because Susan Collins had mentioned that they — that she feels that there could have been more personal engagement before this point in time. And I’m wondering if the president could have done more, if you think the president could have done more, should have done more, and what he’s going to be doing moving forward to get this across the finish line?
SANDERS: I mean, I think you're talking about it as if it’s over, and it’s certainly not. I mean, again, this is part of the process, is walking through. We've said from the beginning that there were going to be changes that would probably take place within this piece of legislation. That's where we are.
Again, the President has been directly engaged and will continue to be so.
Q: Sure. On another topic, I want to ask you about an NPR and Marist poll that came out today. One of the questions they asked was about the president’s tweeting. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said that they found it distracting and it wasn’t helpful. I know that you guys have said repeatedly that you think that the president is the best, the most effective messenger, and that you think the tweeting helps. What do you — where are you guys getting that from when you see polls like this that say that a majority of Americans think that it’s a distraction?
SANDERS: I haven’t seen the poll that you're referencing, but I do know that the president speaking directly to the American people is always a good thing. No matter who the president is, that's a positive, no matter what.
For the people to hear directly from their president, no matter what format that is in — whether it’s through social-media platforms, whether it’s through speeches, whether it’s through interviews — that's always a positive. And I think most people agree.
Q: The President, as we all know, is having an event tonight at his hotel. Is he running for reelection?
SANDERS: Of course he’s running for reelection. I think it would be — but right now, he’s focused on his agenda, focused on the midterms. That will be the first election. He’s raising money for the party. I don't think that's abnormal for any president.
Q: We’d appreciate it if you could open that event up to coverage tonight.
SANDERS: I’ll be sure to pass that on.
Q: Thank you, Sarah. You’ve focused a lot on the problems in the Obamacare exchanges and said today again that this situation is unsustainable. Does the president believe that Medicaid in its current form is unsustainable?
SANDERS: I know that the plan as of right now and certainly in the most recent draft of the bill is to make sure that Medicaid is protected.
Q: In its current form?
SANDERS: In its current form, that anybody who is currently on wouldn’t lose coverage.
Q: But what about in the future? Because this plan drastically changes Medicaid, which actually is a bigger chunk of the health-care delivery system than the Obamacare exchanges?
SANDERS: Look, I think that's — again, part of this process is working through that and figuring out the best way to provide medical care.
Q: Does he want changes in the Medicaid portion of the bill?
SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of, but I would have to speak directly to him. I just don't know the answer to that directly.
Q: Sarah, Paul Manafort, who was for a time the general chairman of the campaign, and Rick Gates, who was a figure in the campaign and also the presidential inaugural committee, have registered retroactively as representatives of a foreign government to retroactively comply with a law which they were not in compliance with. Does the White House regret that they were not in compliance with the law when they were working on behalf of candidate Trump or the inaugural committee? Do you have any reaction to the fact that they're now trying to retroactively do something they should have done long, long ago?
SANDERS: I certainly can't speak for the campaign. I’m here solely as a representative of the White House, and that would be a campaign matter. And I couldn’t speak to that.
Q: Let me ask you about health care. Yesterday, Senator Paul, after his meeting with the president, didn't say directly, but he left the impression that part of their conversation was for Senator Paul to express that he didn't believe the current draft fully repeals the Affordable Care Act, and that's one of his grievances. And he left the impression that the president might agree with him on that. So I want to ask you directly: Does the president believe that one of the flaws with the current draft is that it does not go far enough to repeal the Affordable Care Act?
SANDERS: I wasn’t part of that conversation. I would be happy to ask that question and follow up with you, maybe.
Q: Thank you, Sarah. There’s a lot of changes being floated out there — changes to Medicaid, changes to U.S. coverage requirements. Is there a change that's being proposed that would be a nonstarter for President Trump, that would be a dealbreaker, that if it was included he wouldn’t put his signature on the bill?
SANDERS: I’m sure that there are things. I mean, there’s a lot of crazy things I’m sure that could be suggested that would be dealbreakers for all of the Senate. But we haven’t sat down and made a list of dealbreakers. If we have, I’m not aware of it. But I can certainly ask if there is one and circle back.
Q: Thank you. Sarah, at the State Department, the positions of special envoy to combat anti-Semitism and the ambassador for international religious freedom have — they remain vacant. It’s my understanding that the special envoy position is going to expire or be empty in a few days. This as anti-Semitism and religious persecution, of course, worldwide is on the rise. These are values the president routinely raises. Is this a missed opportunity? Does the White House or does the State Department plan to fill these positions? What’s going on here?
SANDERS: I mean, I think certainly one of the biggest missed opportunities is the ability for us to staff across the board. We have seen obstruction like never before. The average time that it’s taking for us to get somebody through the process and confirmed is significantly longer than any historical precedent by several weeks.
We have nearly a hundred people in the queue that are waiting to be pushed through. And due to the lengthy process and the obstruction by Democrats, that's held up a number of positions, not just at the State Department, but across the federal government. Hopefully we can get those positions filled. And certainly I would imagine those would be on that list.
Q: Two things — to follow up on a question earlier. Why is the White House choosing to keep the president’s remarks at the fundraiser tonight closed to the press?
SANDERS: I think that's been tradition. And as you're shaking —
Q: Only in private homes.
SANDERS: — that's actually not true. There were actually quite a few instances during both of the two previous administrations not to open up fundraisers. If that changes, I’ll certainly —
Q: But we go — the pool goes in at the time.
Q: But what is this administration’s explanation for why that’s necessary?
SANDERS: I think it’s a political event and they’ve chosen to keep that separate for the time being.
Q: And then I also wanted to ask you about one of the president’s tweets earlier today when he talked about The Washington Post and Amazon, referring to Amazon not paying Internet taxes, he says, which they should. What was the president referring to?
SANDERS: I’d have to check on that. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it.
Q: Thank you. I have two for you. One on health care, the president, in the West Wing here, was talking about Senator Chuck Schumer. He says that he’s done a lot of bad talking and doesn't seem like a serious person. There’s some discussion on the Hill that there needs to be a bipartisan solution with health care. So given those comments about Senator Schumer, who presumably would have to come to the table, is the president abandoning Democratic cooperation?
SANDERS: I think Democrats abandoned the ability when they said that they were unwilling to come to the table and have, frankly, refused to be part of the conversation from the beginning. And I think they set that tone and certainly set that standard by not participating, by not wanting to be part of the process.
Thanks so much, guys.