The White House has released a transcript of today’s off-camera press briefing with Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:
2:26 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Before I get into the issues of today and take your questions, I first want to take a minute to acknowledge the 16 servicemen and women who lost their lives yesterday in a crash of a Marine Corps transport plane in Mississippi. As of now, the investigation into the details of the crash is still ongoing, but as the President said this morning, this is a truly heartbreaking incident. The thoughts and prayers of the entire administration are with the friends and families of the Marines who died in this tragic accident.
Yesterday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a report showing that half of the insurers who initially offered plans on the Obamacare exchanges have already fled the markets. I know that similar reports and announcements like these are coming out literally every day, but each of these announcements further reveal the failure of Obamacare.
For the millions of American families and individuals caught in the fallout of Obamacare’s collapse, these reports come as no surprise. They have been suffering the consequences of this failed law firsthand for far too long, and it’s time for Senate Republicans to step up and fulfill the promise they made to those Americans by repealing and replacing it.
Tomorrow, the Vice President will meet with another group of companies and individuals who have been harmed by Obamacare in Kentucky, continuing the nationwide travel he’s been doing throughout this entire repeal and replace process.
The President is determined to sign a bill that restores choice to the American people as soon as possible. Of course, while Republicans are working around the clock -- and as Senator McConnell just announced, well into August -- to address some of our biggest legislative priorities, and as Marc and I both told you yesterday, Democrats are looking to set a record for pointless and dangerous obstruction.
I know Marc went through some of the numbers with you yesterday but there are just a few that I find truly astounding and would like to reiterate. While more than 90 percent of the previous administration’s nominations were confirmed by a simple voice vote, Democrats in the Senate have allowed only approximately 10 percent of President Trump’s nominees to be voted on in that way.
As I mentioned, we’re coming up on the August recess of President Trump’s first term, by which point the Senate has confirmed 69 percent of President Obama’s nominations. Less than a month out from that same point, the Senate has confirmed only approximately 23 percent of President Trump’s nominees.
These numbers show the Democrats’ true colors. They’re willing to play political games with the safety and security of the American economy and the American people, rather than work with this administration to solve the serious problems our nation faces. It’s shameful that they are shirking the responsibility of the American people to put them in office to carry out -- to protect and promote our nation and its citizens. It’s well past time that Senate Democrats stop this unprecedented obstruction.
And with that, I will take your questions. Kevin.
Q Thanks, Sarah. At what point did the President discuss with Donald Trump, Jr. that meeting? Have you had a chance to get a sense of what he feels about this entire story as it continues to unfold? What’s your sense on that? And then a follow-up?
MS. SANDERS: I’ve got a quick statement that I will read from the President: “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
And beyond that, I’m going to have to refer everything on this matter to Don Jr.’s counsel and outside counsel, and won’t have anything else to add beyond that today.
Q That’s your words, at the end?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, the end, I’m sorry.
Q And if I could follow up really quickly about the accident. How soon afterward did the President learn about what happened? What was the tick-tock, in terms of that? Did he get immediate word or did it sort of go through a certain chain of events?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure on the exact process. I’ll have to check. I know he was aware of the situation, briefed on the situation, and continued to get updates on it. But I don’t know the exact tick-tock so I’ll have to circle back with you on that, Kevin.
Q Sarah, given these emails, you had somebody who was identified as a Russian government lawyer; Don Jr. agreeing to meet with him, being told in those emails that the Russian government was trying to help the President win the election. Do you stand by a statement you made yesterday when you said that “Our position is that no one within the Trump campaign colluded in order to influence the election”?
MS. SANDERS: I do. And again, I don’t have -- beyond the statements yesterday and what I read today, I don’t have anything else to add, Jill.
Q And when was the last time the two of them spoke, Don Jr. and the President?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Do you know the last time the President spoke with Don Jr.?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t.
Q Thanks. So the White House hasn’t disputed any of the following, which is that the President’s son, campaign chairman, and son-in-law had this meeting with the express purpose of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton and with knowledge of the Russian government supporting Trump’s campaign. How is that not collusion?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I know you guys are going to get tired of it today -- and not to sound like a broken record -- but on all questions related to this matter, I would refer you to Don Jr.’s counsel and outside counsel.
Q But you’re not disputing any of the facts?
MS. SANDERS: I’m simply referring you to people that can answer that question, Matthew.
Q Sarah, in January the President said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians, and the White House stood by that statement. Was the President misled or was he not truthful?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, to repeat myself, I’m going to refer you to the outside counsel, and I don’t have anything else to add.
Q Sarah, can we ask you, why weren’t you interested in answering the question yesterday, and why the President is not answering the questions himself either through you or directly today? What changed between yesterday and today?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President gave a statement on the matter, which I read to you. And like I’ve said, I don’t have anything else to add beyond that.
Q Is the President still of a mind that he would like the investigation under the special counsel and committees on Capitol Hill to work as expeditiously as possible, and he wants to cooperate, and wants his family members and his top aides here at the White House to cooperate?
MS. SANDERS: Absolutely. That’s never changed since day one. We’d love to get this matter closed and focus on the big priorities of the American people.
Q So, Sarah, let me follow up. So by not answering the questions directly himself, or through you, is that in his mind expediting the investigation or is it blocking the investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into the back-and-forth on that.
Q Sarah, when the White House says there was no collusion, what does the White House mean? What is the definition of collusion?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’ve said all that we’re going to say on that matter. And anything further, you guys are going to have to reach out to outside counsel.
Q Sarah, the words “collusion” have been used, other words have been used, “obstruction of justice.” They’re saying now that’s not even half of it. It could be treason or perjury. What does the White House have to say? There are new terms brought into this; new serious -- more serious terms brought into this.
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know how many times we’ll have to address this.
Q I’m not asking about Don Jr. I’m asking about these words being brought into this equation that you want -- this White House wants this whole investigation to be gone. There are new words now brought in.
MS. SANDERS: I think those new words are ridiculous.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I have two questions for you. First, asking specifically about actions taken by White House staff in the last 72 hours --
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, White House what?
Q By White House staff recently, to something that should not require you deferring to special counsel. Can you talk about who inside the White House has been involved in your response on this? Has the President been kept in the loop, the Chief of Staff and others in the administration? Are you looking into potential communications by others on the White House staff in regards to this matter or similar matters?
MS. SANDERS: All of the appropriate parties have been part of that conversation and part of that discussion.
Q Jared Kushner has apparently forwarded this same email. Is he still -- is his security clearance still valid right now?
MS. SANDERS: As always, we’ve never discussed the security clearances.
Q And, Sarah, just one more. Yesterday you said you’d check back to us on the status of how the President views the U.S.-Russia relationship. So can you update us? Is Russia a friend or foe?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I haven’t had a chance to have that direct conversation. I’ve been a little preoccupied with other things, but I certainly will check on that, Zeke.
Q A policy question on Afghanistan and then something about the statement you just read. So has the President, through H.R. McMaster, notified the Pentagon that he is reasserting the cap of 3,900 additional troops to Afghanistan? Initially, it was reported that he had given the Pentagon, General Mattis, authority to increase the troop numbers in accordance with the strategy. It’s now subsequently been reported that memos from H.R. McMaster said it’s now limited at 3,900 and no more troops, regardless of the strategy. Can you tell us if that’s true?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of that specific memo, but I will check into the details of that and circle back.
Q Can you tell us how seriously the President considered the idea of using private contractors to augment U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan as opposed to U.S. military personnel?
MS. SANDERS: I know that we feel it’s important to get input from all perspectives, and all of the right people were part of that process throughout, in any conversation. Look, we’ve used contractors extensively over the last 16 years. Currently, there are tens of thousands of contractors that are bravely serving alongside a lot of the U.S. military and coalition forces. And we’re finalizing the review fully of the Afghanistan policy, and it only makes sense to consult those leaders in the field, as well. And that’s simply just part of the review process.
Q When you say the right people, does that include Erik Prince?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I meant from our inside, internally -- all of the right people would be part of that process in terms of national security team.
Q Can you confirm if Erik Prince part of the conversations about the contract?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t but -- I cannot at this time, but I’ll check and let you know.
Q All right. And on the President’s statement -- because you can talk about that, I would assume, since you read it to us -- what transparency is the President applauding?
MS. SANDERS: I believe the willingness on behalf of everyone within the administration or anything beyond that --
Q But it’s about Don Jr., right?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry. On any --
Q The statement is about Don Jr.
MS. SANDERS: I know. I’m trying to finish my sentence, Major. And anyone beyond that that might be asked questions, the willingness to do so and to be fully transparent and open and answer any questions through the correct process, whether that is through the special counsel or anything beyond that.
Q Sarah, is the President aware, as he speaks about the transparency of his son, that he only released those emails after being informed that The New York Times was about to publish them?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure, Peter. I’d have to check.
Q Let me ask you more broadly about what we spoke about yesterday on the topic of appropriateness in terms of campaigns. Explain to Americans, who are asking this question today, why it’s appropriate for a presidential campaign to accept a meeting with a Russian national after being promised high-level and sensitive information presented as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump. Explain to Americans why that would be appropriate.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get into the details of anything surrounding this, and would refer you to Don Jr.’s outside counsel.
Q Do you stand by your statement that it was --
MS. SANDERS: I stand -- as I mentioned earlier, I stand by everything I said yesterday.
Q The Vice President, through his spokesman, said today that Mr. Pence is not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket. That’s been taken by many people in this town to suggest that there is a distance between the President and the Vice President on this. Is there such a distance?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. There’s absolutely no distance between the President and the Vice President.
Q Do you know if the President has spoken to the Vice President about this?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know if they’ve spoken directly about this, but I know they’ve spoken today.
Q One more question. There are lots of people who would like to know why this briefing was off-camera today. Do you have a rationale for it?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve said many times before, I believe Sean stated back in December, we’re always looking at different approaches and different ways to communicate the President’s message and talk about the agenda. This is one of the many ways we choose to do that.
Q I’m going to take two bites out of this apple as well. The first is with the stock market.
MS. SANDERS: Let’s not break precedent.
Q The stock market sharply declined today on the release of the emails by Don Jr. And so I’m wondering if you’re concerned that these revelations are going to impact the U.S. economy and if you want to offer any assurances to investors that see this news and they’re obviously responding.
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President, as he has been, not just since assuming office but throughout the campaign, is focused on doing everything he can to strengthen and grow our economy, and that certainly hasn’t changed today nor will it at any point that he’s President, Justin.
Q And then, to go back to the statement that you read, the President says that he applauds Don Jr.’s transparency. I’m wondering if you guys would (inaudible) now that he’s disclosed any other meetings that happened between Russian nationals and members of the Trump campaign towards that transparency.
MS. SANDERS: There’s nothing that I’m aware of at this time.
Q Yesterday, you compared the meeting to Hillary Clinton’s campaign coordination with Ukraine. Do you feel like coordinating with any -- all countries in the world are pretty much the same? That there’s no difference between Ukraine or Russia or any other country?
MS. SANDERS: I think it would depend on the nature. I mean, I can’t speak about theoretical or hypothetical situations?
Q Okay. Well, just take Ukraine and Russia. Do you feel that they’re equivalent?
MS. SANDERS: In what way? They’re very different countries. I’m not going to put them on an equivalent playing field across the board on any matter that could possibly come up.
Q Do you consider them both allies, partners of the United States, or adversaries? I mean, in what way are they similar? Because you compared them yesterday.
MS. SANDERS: I was talking about the process, not the two countries. I was talking about the process that had been gone through by both sides. And that’s all -- the point I was making.
Q Okay, but I thought you were saying if it was okay for Hillary to coordinate with Ukraine, then it should be okay -- or to meet with Ukraine about possible information that might be relevant on the campaign, it would be equally okay to meet with Russians about information they may have.
MS. SANDERS: I was talking about simply the process and nothing beyond that.
Q You still think it was okay -- put aside the issue of collusion. Is it appropriate to meet with Russians about information they might have during that campaign?
MS. SANDERS: As I said earlier, I stand by the comments I made yesterday.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two quick questions for you. Have you spoken with the President in the past 24 hours?
MS. SANDERS: Yes.
Q What was his general reaction to story? Without getting into an official White House response to some of the questions earlier, did you speak with him about this story?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President is, I would say, frustrated with the process of the fact that this continues to be an issue. And he would love for us to be focused on things, like Justin mentioned, the economy, on healthcare, on tax reform, on infrastructure. And that’s the place that his mind is, and that’s what he’d like to be discussing.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions as well. Senator Rubio said this morning that the entire matter involving Donald Trump, Jr. is, and I quote, “Mueller territory.” In other words, it should be left solely up to the special prosecutor. What’s the White House reaction to that?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I would refer you to the outside special counsel, and I think that’s something that they could work on together.
Q So you have no reaction to what Senator Rubio said?
MS. SANDERS: No I don’t, John.
Q My other question is about personnel. The President has -- and you pointed this out yesterday in the form you handed out -- numerous judicial vacancies to fill, including four on the controversial 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In an effort to speed this up, will the administration waive the blue slip process from senators or the opinion of the American Bar Association?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know if those conversations have taken place about whether or not to waive that if it were to expedite, but I’ll be happy to check into it for you.
Q Thanks. I have three, but I’ll try to be quick.
MS. SANDERS: Three?
Q Secretary Mattis said a month ago that you guys would be rolling out the new Afghanistan strategy by mid-July. Does that still hold?
MS. SANDERS: I know that the plan is to roll that out after there’s been a full review process. I don’t have anything beyond that at this point. I know they’d like to do that soon.
Q Okay. Be that as it may, what role does the President see for himself in terms of explaining the strategy to the American people? Does he plan a primetime address, does he plan a press conference, does he plan a national tour? How implicated do you think he will be in selling the new strategy to the public?
MS. SANDERS: I think those things will be determined once the new strategy is finalized.
Q Last one. Whose decision was it to provide relatively limited answers today to the Don Jr. question? Is it a lawyer, or did White House Counsel instruct you not to do this? Is it a communications decision? Who made that decision?
MS. SANDERS: As I told Zeke earlier, all the appropriate parties were part of the conversation and that decision was made internally.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The administration missed its deadline to make a decision on steel tariffs. Can you give us an update on where that decision stands? Can we expect a decision this week?
MS. SANDERS: The report and any recommendations within that report are going through normal interagency review process, and as soon as that’s completed that will be released. Hopefully in short order.
Q Sarah, is there a reason that the deadline wasn’t met?
MS. SANDERS: It was a self-imposed deadline and they’re working to get it through the final review process as quickly as possible.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. In the conversation that you had with the President, did he give an indication to you that these stories that we see come out day after day, in The New York Times specifically, are in any way self-inflicted? After all, it’s the meeting that Don Jr. had with this Russian lawyer that has precipitated all of this.
MS. SANDERS: No. And I think the President has made it pretty clear his position on this entire process.
Q When you have that conversation with the President, do you ask him -- just so you can speak with us and inform us -- do you say, what was the nature, from your understanding, Mr. President, about the conversation your son and these other two individuals had with this Russian lawyer?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t have that type of conversation. The conversations I have -- the goal is to get information that I can best communicate to you guys, whether it’s on healthcare or infrastructure or tax reform or any other matter. The way those conversations play out are going to vary from topic to topic.
Go ahead. Yes, ma’am.
Q On sanctions, I wanted to ask: Is the White House suggesting or asking for new language to insert kind of a tweak to give the President the waivers -- the national security waivers -- that you’re seeking? Or is the White House wanting to see the bill cancelled all together and killed all together?
MS. SANDERS: As I said yesterday, the President is committed to maintaining the existing sanctions against Russia until Moscow reverses the aggressive actions against Ukraine that triggered the sanctions. And President Trump reaffirmed this position at the G20 last Friday. But this is more about foreign policy and having the flexibility to negotiate with other countries, and this includes working with allies and partners to present a united front to common foes. And we remain committed to working with Congress on those issues.
Q Thank you.
Q She called on -- can you call on me next, Sarah?
MS. SANDERS: Sure.
Q Thank you.
Q With Mosul now in Iraqi hands, does the President have a strategy for the future of Iraq or U.S. involvement in Iraq?
MS. SANDERS: You know, those are continued conversations. And as we have announcements on it, we’ll let you guys know.
Q Thanks, Sarah.
Q I’m going to take this one.
MS. SANDERS: I promised I’d come to him.
Q Is President Trump now aware of the Russian government effort to influence the campaign in his favor?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Is the President now aware of the Russian government effort to influence the campaign in his favor?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to answer any questions on that matter.
Q And a follow-up on that. Yesterday, you were asked when the President learned of the Donald Jr. meeting, and your response was, “I believe in the last couple of days is my understanding.” Is there any reason that we should think that answer would change today? Have you learned anything new that would change your response there?
MS. SANDERS: No I haven’t. Thanks, guys, so much.
END 2:48 P.M. EDT