Amid reports that Donald Trump Jr. met last year with a Kremlin-connected Russian attorney who promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders held an off-camera briefing on Monday. Live audio broadcasts also were banned.
The Fix has annotated a transcript of the portion of the session during which Sanders spoke and answered questions, since it could not be seen on TV. (Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short also spoke and took questions.)
We'll continue the practice whenever White House spokesmen go off camera. To view an annotation, click on the yellow, highlighted text.
SANDERS: Good afternoon. Before we get started, I’d like to bring up Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs, to give an update on how we're moving the president’s agenda through Congress, particularly on the historic obstruction from Senate Democrats on confirming the president’s incredibly qualified nominees to posts across the federal government.
After his statement, Marc will take a few of your questions on that topic; and after that, I will be back to answer your other questions.
SANDERS: Thanks, Marc.
Before we talk about all of the things coming up this week, I wanted to quickly give you guys a recap of the president’s trip to Poland and Germany last week and some of the things that happened back here at home while we were gone.
In both Germany and Poland, the president sought to reinforce old alliances and build new relationships, just as he promised he would do in his Inaugural Address to serve the interests of the American people.
In Poland, President Trump gave a powerful and historic speech in Warsaw that was widely praised both in Poland and the United States as one of the most important speeches by an American president on foreign soil in decades.
In his speech, the president saluted the spirit of the Polish people over centuries of hardship, and especially the Polish heroes of the Warsaw Uprising and those in the struggle to defeat communism.
The president reaffirmed that the NATO Alliance of free, sovereign, and strong independent nations is in the best interests of America and the security of the American people. He also reaffirmed America’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty and called upon member states to honor their full and fair financial obligations.
But even more importantly, the Warsaw Speech was a stirring defense of the West in a manner not heard from an American president in many years. Using the Polish experience as an example, President Trump reminded us of the shared history, culture, and values that have made Western civilization great and urged the nations of the West to defend it from new threats inside and out.
President Trump concluded by challenging the nations of the West to remember our histories, have confidence in our values, and have pride in who we are. He proclaimed that by remembering these strengths, we will continue to be the greatest, freest, most successful community of nations in history.
In Germany, the president successfully achieved his objectives on behalf of the American people at the G-20.
In his discussions with more than a dozen foreign leaders, he underscored the need for nations to join together to strip terrorists of their funding, territory and ideological support — and to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.
On North Korea, he called on all nations to isolate the regime and to cut off all ties of trade and commerce.
At the same time, he hailed the launch of the World Bank’s Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, of which the United States is a founding member, to help empower women all across the world.
In his meetings, President Trump also underscored the need to end unfair trade practices and to finally provide American workers and businesses with a level playing field.
The trip to Poland and participation in the G-20 summit have given the president tremendous cause for hope. He returned to the United States with great optimism for the future and incredible excitement for what lies ahead.
On Friday, while the president was participating in those important discussions at the G-20, the June jobs report came out back here at home. Sadly there wasn’t a lot of coverage of these numbers, so I wanted to give you a few highlights: There were — 222,000 new jobs were added in June, higher than the monthly average over the past year and well above expectations. With 187,000 private sector jobs added in June, there have now been over 800,000 private sector jobs added since the president took office.
And on top of all that, the jobs report from April and May were revised upward reflecting that an additional 47,000 jobs were added in those months than previously reported.
Looking ahead, as Marc told you, congressional Democrats are committed to inaction. Republicans are driving a lot of action on the Hill this week. Both houses are taking up important legislation on defense spending, military construction, and veterans affairs spending. And of course, the Senate is continuing to work on the Republican plan to repeal and replace the collapsing Obamacare system before it completely falls apart.
Just today, the Gallup-Sharecare survey showed that nearly 2 million adults in the United States dropped out of health care coverage this year. That’s 2 million more Americans who are being completely failed by the last administration’s broken promises; 2 million more Americans who deserve better, and they’re only a small part of the picture of those families and individuals who are suffering under the current system.
For those 2 million Americans and the countless others we hear about each time another insurer pulls out of a state’s exchange or one of the dwindling number of co-ops fails, it’s critical that the Senate moves swiftly and decisively to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that truly supports everyone to get the health care coverage they need.
Later this week, of course, the president will be in France, and we will have more details on that trip in the coming days. While the president is in France, the vice president will deliver the opening keynote address to the National Governors Association’s Summer Meeting on Friday. And as a former governor, the vice president will speak with some of his former colleagues about the president’s commitment to partnering with the states on issues like infrastructure, health care, and education. While in Rhode Island for the event, he will also meet with the prime minister of Canada, who is attending the NGA meeting to continue our country’s productive conversations on immigration, security, and trade — including renegotiating NAFTA.
Before I take your questions, I want to read a statement from the president on some recent current events.
Today, Iraqi Security Forces supported by the United States in the global coalition, liberated the city of Mosul from its longtime nightmare under the rule of ISIS. We congratulate Prime Minister Abadi, the Iraqi Security Forces, and all the Iraqis for their victory over terrorists who are the enemies of all civilized people. We mourn the thousands of Iraqis brutally killed by ISIS and the millions of Iraqis who suffered at the hands of ISIS. We grieve with the Iraqi people for the loss of heroic soldiers who gave their lives to restore life to their country, and we honor their sacrifice.
We in the United States and the global coalition are proud to stand with the Iraqi Security Forces and all those who made this moment of liberation possible. We’ve made tremendous progress against ISIS more in the past six months than the years since ISIS became a major threat. The victory in Mosul, a city where ISIS once proclaimed its so-called caliphate, signals that its days in Iraq and Syria are numbered. We will continue to seek the total destruction of ISIS.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. And, because he’s not always here and he’s a fellow Arkansan, Frank Lockwood.
Q. Thank you.
SANDERS: Because I get to pick. (Laughter.)
Q. The president, today, tweeted that it would be unimaginable — he can’t imagine that Congress would go home from Washington in August, take the month off — if they haven’t dealt with the repeal and replace of Obamacare. If Congress does the unimaginable and goes for a month, is the president prepared to ensure that there are consequences for those vacationing lawmakers in 2018?
SANDERS: I don’t know that he’s going to lay out a list of consequences. I think he’s focused on the positive component of this, and that’s the hope that all of the members of Congress will come together to repeal and replace Obamacare. That’s his focus — is making sure it gets done. Not on what happens if it doesn’t.
Q. If I could ask on one more tweet. The president also tweeted this morning about Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton — said that she was giving away the country, I believe. At what point is the president going to put Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Bill Clinton in the rearview mirror? He won the election. He won it fair and square. When does he just let them go and look forward?
SANDERS: I believe this tweet was a response to the attacks on his daughter taking his seat, if I’m correct. Is that the one you’re referring to, Frank?
SANDERS: Look, this wasn’t about putting them in the front. This was about responding to an outrageous attack against a White House senior adviser. And it’s pretty standard protocol that when the leader gets up, someone takes their seat — as Chancellor Merkel also pointed out and said that this was perfectly standard protocol.
In fact, I think that we should be proud to have Ivanka sitting in that seat, considering particularly the topic at hand was part of her portfolio. If she didn’t have the last name that she has, I think she would be constantly celebrated instead of constantly attacked, and I frankly think it’s a sad thing that they chose to go after her in that moment.
Q. Sarah, first, just a quick clarification from the meeting with Putin in Germany: Did the president say that he accepted Putin’s denial of any involvement in election interference, as Putin said in his press conference? Have you had a chance to ask the president about that?
SANDERS: The president was — multiple times asked Putin whether or not he was involved. It took up a great deal of the conversation that they had on the front end of their meeting, and the president heard Putin’s denial and also realized they had some very important topics they needed to cover — Ukraine, North Korea, Syria — and decided to move on from that point of the conversation and focus on those issues.
Q. But he didn’t accept that denial or did he?
SANDERS: Look, he heard Putin’s denial and he knew that at the end of the day the important part was them being able to have that conversation, him to directly ask him. He heard his answer and he moved forward with places that they thought they could work together. The president has been clear from his statements back in January and even in his tweets over the last couple of days, his opinion on that matter.
Q. And the question I wanted to ask was the reports on this meeting that took place at Trump Tower last June with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner. When did the president learn that that meeting had taken place?
SANDERS: I believe in the last couple of days is my understanding.
Q. Is he concerned about that — that the top leadership of his campaign would take a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising to give negative information?
SANDERS: No, I mean, I’ve been on several campaigns and people call offering information. As I know many of you receive similar calls of people offering information. Don Jr. took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up. Frankly, I think something that may make sense is looking at the Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy. This is not an accusation, that’s an on-the-record action that they took. So if you’re looking for an example of a campaign coordinating with a foreign country or a foreign source, look no further than the DNC who actually coordinated opposition research with the Ukrainian Embassy. And no one in this room to my knowledge really had a big problem with that.
The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting was the people that leaked the information on the meeting after it was voluntarily disclosed. At this point, I’d also like to add, Donald Trump Jr. has made a statement on this, the president’s outside counsel has made a statement on it, and now I have as well and I’m not going to add anything further.
Q. Just to follow up on that. If this sort of meeting is normal and standard practice in the campaign, do you know if there were any other meetings that either Donald Trump Jr. or other representatives of the Trump campaign had with other Russian officials or any other foreign agent to collect information about Hillary?
SANDERS: I don’t know of any other meetings with Don Jr., but I also haven’t had an extensive conversation with him.
Q. Has anyone looked into whether there were any others?
SANDERS: I’m not sure, Phil. I’ll have to check and get back to you.
Q. Thanks, Sarah. I have a quick question about this cyber task force with Russia. Yesterday the president tweeted about the cybersecurity unit being put together, and then about 12 hours later said that it would never happen. What went down in those 12 hours that so drastically changed that situation?
SANDERS: This was part of a discussion in that meeting and, look, we recognize that Russia is a cyber threat, but we also recognize the need to have conversations with our adversaries. And when our adversaries see strength like they did with the president in the meeting, they can look for other ways to work on shared interests and look for positive places where they can move the ball forward. Particularly on things like the cease-fire, and that became a greater focus and something the president chose to stay focused on — is that front.
Q. Sarah, just to clarify: That idea is dead?
SANDERS: Look, I would say that discussions may still take place but that’s as far as it is right now.
Q. Okay. And I know you just said a minute ago you aren’t going to make any additional statement, but there’s a history and we have been asked by you and others at the podium to respect the statements you make there. So, there’s a long history of blanket denials, during the transition and during times of this administration about nobody within the campaign having any meetings under any circumstances at all with Russian officials. And now one was disclosed this weekend. The original characterization of that meeting was amended within 24 hours when new information was placed before Don Jr. How are we to take all of these blanket denials that occurred through the transition and now when it has been proven and recognized by the president’s attorney and Don Jr. that those blanket denials were not factual?
SANDERS: I think the point is that we’ve tried to make every single time, today and then, and will continue to make in those statements is that there was simply no collusion that they keep trying to create that there was.
But that’s a different question than was asked at the time and different than the statements were about. The questions originally, as you know and I know, were about contacts, and those were blanket denials. And then when the contacts became confirmed, then it was, well they were infrequent. Well now we have a whole pattern of lots of different meetings that have to be confirmed later. And those original questions were not about collusion, Sarah. They were just about contacts.
SANDERS: They were originally about that. That’s the whole premise of what you’re asking the question is whether or not the campaign colluded with Russia. That’s the premise of the entire scope of your questioning, and the point we’ve tried to make over and over again and will continue to make is that there wasn’t. And beyond that, I really can’t offer you anything.
Q. Sarah, back to yesterday morning’s tweets. Can you tell us what it was or what is or what was going to be a cybersecurity unit and how this was going to work?
SANDERS: I’m not sure there were specific details discussed. I think it was simply just a discussion on cybersecurity threats and potential options. Not necessarily a formal kind of structure in place.
Q. Thanks a lot, Sarah. After this two and a half-hour meeting with President Putin that the president had in Germany, how would you describe the state of U.S. relations with Russia. Do you view Russia as a partner? Do you view them as an ally? Do you view them as an adversary?
SANDERS: I would want to have further conversations with members of the Secretary of State, National Security Council, but I think we saw that there were places of shared interest that we can work together; specifically, things like the Syrian cease-fire, that we both can agree on in order to move forward in some places. I don’t think that’s going to be the case on everything, but there are certainly certain instances where we can work together with Russia to make every part of the world a little bit safer.
Q. And does the president trust President Putin?
SANDERS: I haven’t asked him that question.
Q. Can you please ask him that question?
Q. Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions. We know there was no note taker in the meeting, but did you make an audio recording of the meeting or did the Russians?
SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. I’d have to ask. I’m not sure.
Q. Can you ask?
And the second question is: Director Comey was under oath when he said that the memo that he gave to his friend did not include classified information, and the president tweeted this morning that he did leak classified information. Is he accusing Comey of perjury?
SANDERS: I think there are a lot of questions out there and a lot of reports where it indicates that Director Comey may have leaked classified information. That certainly is a threat to the national security and violates policy.
Q. You believe he leaked classified information?
SANDERS: I think it is something that should be investigated thoroughly.
Q. But the president stated flatly that he leaked classified information.
SANDERS: He’s got a much higher clearance. He may know something I don’t.
Q. Sarah, I want to go back to a couple of questions. When you talk about the issue of Don Jr., you talk and you said leaked. What do you think about the word whistleblower?
SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q. You’re trying to say people who gave that information were leakers. What about the issue of whistleblower? What do you see whistleblower versus leaker?
SANDERS: I think this is a voluntary disclosure to include some of that information, and I think that it would be inappropriate for that to be shared outside of the scope of the people that should have that information.
Q. Sarah, I just have one more question. So on the issue of collusion, are you saying there’s no collusion when it comes to the overall arch of the campaign? But what about the individuals? What about individuals that could be suspects of collusion? Are you vouching just for everyone in total or individuals or what?
SANDERS: I’m saying that the president’s campaign did not collude in any way.
Q. So then when we go to different people, what do you say about that? Don Jr.? Anyone — the names that are coming up.
SANDERS: I would certainly say Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election.
Q. What about Flynn? What about Flynn?
SANDERS: To my knowledge, he did not collude with anybody to influence the campaign. Again, I think I’ve been very clear, our position is that no one within the Trump campaign colluded in order to influence the election. I think the bottom line is that the Democrats had a weak candidate, and President Trump had a stronger message, and they’re constantly looking for ways to undermine the president and delegitimize his election victory.
Q. Thank you, Sarah. Two brief questions. When the president arrived for the G-20 Summit, it was widely reported that the Putin regime was cracking down on the opposition candidate — Mr. Navalny at the time. This has been just the latest in a series of events in which human rights and dissent have been crushed in Russia. Was human rights raised at all by the president in his conversations with the Russian president?
SANDERS: I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask, John, and get back to you on that.
Q. Sll right. My other question is —
SANDERS: I knew there was a second one coming.
Q. The president did talk privately with Chancellor Merkel, we know. Days before he arrived there, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, made a much publicized change in its platform and dropped its reference to the United States as a friend and changed that to important ally. Was this something that came up in their meeting and did the president ask why she did that?
SANDERS: Again, I haven’t heard that that was specifically discussed, but I’ll be happy to ask and circle back with you.
Q. Two quick questions for you. Did President Trump discuss sanctions with Russian President Putin at the G-20 Summit?
SANDERS: I do know that it was mentioned. Specifically, when you ask about sanctions I know there is a little bit of a question there, and there were sanctions specific to election meddling that I believe were discussed, but not beyond that.
Q. Did the president’s views on sanctions against the Russians change at all after his meeting with President Putin?
SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q. Thank you, Sarah. This latest meeting with the Russian lawyer. We now have three instances where — including with Ambassador Kislyak and a head of the Russia bank — where Jared Kushner seems to have met with Russians and not disclosed it during his security clearance check. Is the White House at all concerned about that and do you think it raises any questions about Kushner’s confidence or honesty?
SANDERS: I believe, actually, it was disclosed on his security clearance when it updated — yeah —
Q. His updated paperwork, not initially.
SANDERS: Right. With all of his contacts from during the transition and prior to that, they were all included in the update, not the original.
Q. So I’m saying — his omission in the original of all these meetings with Russians, is there any concern about that?
SANDERS: No, because it was just an incomplete form. All of his foreign contacts were listed in the updated version not in the original.
Q. One of the subjects President Macron wants to talk to the president about is the Paris climate accord. Is the president willing to negotiate his position on this?
SANDERS: I certainly think he likes to keep all things on the negotiating table. At the end of the day, the president is very focused on making sure that he gets the best deal for the American people. He certainly wants to do things to protect the environment, as we have a history of doing in the United States. He’s going to continue that practice and continue to encourage it but also make sure that he’s making the deal that’s best for the American people.
Thanks so much, guys.