White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- The U.S. Expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats in response to U.K. spy assassination incident
- Policy on transgender individuals in the military
- The fallout from the omnibus spending bill (H.R. 1625: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018)
MR. SHAH: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me start by saying that the United States is deeply saddened by the news of yesterday’s tragic fire at a shopping mall in Siberia. The American people extend our deepest sympathies to the Russian people and the families of those who lost their lives and were injured in the fire.
Separately, as many of you saw, the President ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers, and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle.
This action is a response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon in the United Kingdom, and was taken in conjunction with our allies and partners around the world, including more than a dozen countries in the EU and NATO, and others around the world.
Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations and threaten America’s national security. With these steps, the U.S. and our allies and partners around the world make clear to Russia that actions have consequences.
We stand ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government’s behavior.
Looking ahead to next week, the President will welcome the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the White House on April 3rd.
President Trump and the three Baltic heads of state will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s independence and set the stage for another century of strong ties between our countries.
The U.S.-Baltic Summit will focus on how best to strengthen our security, business, trade, energy, and cultural partnerships. The visit will also highlight Baltic States’ achievements since their independence, including their economic growth, recent success in meeting NATO’s defense and spending pledges.
A quick reminder for everyone here, the annual White House Easter Egg Roll will take place on the South Lawn a week from today. We are inviting members of the White House Press Corps to bring your kids to the event. So please work with the Press Office to secure tickets, if you haven’t already.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q Thanks, Raj. Thanks for doing this. First, on Thursday, White House officials were up on the stage and they said the President would sign the omnibus legislation. On Friday morning, he threatened to veto it. Ultimately, he signed it. Ten days ago, Sarah said that H.R. McMaster had the President’s confidence and support and wouldn’t be leaving. Last Thursday, it was announced that he would be leaving the White House. And about two and a half weeks ago, the President expressed confidence in his attorneys. And then there was a bit of shake-up there last week. So can you talk — speak to the White House’s credibility, why should we, in this room, and more importantly, the American people, trust anything that this administration is telling them?
MR. SHAH: Well, our job, as a press office and as an administration, is to give you the best information that we have available to us, the most accurate information in a timely fashion. Sometimes the dynamics are fluid in any given situation. You mentioned some personnel matters; facts and circumstances change. We continue to give you guys the best information that we can as quickly as possible.
Q Thanks, Raj. One more for you just on the Stormy Daniels incident. I’m sure my colleagues have more questions on that. Could you state, categorically, that the President, his campaign, and the Trump Organization did not violate federal law — specifically, election law — regarding that payment?
MR. SHAH: Well, I can speak for only the White House, and I can say, categorically, and obviously, the White House didn’t engage in any wrongdoing. The campaign or Mr. Cohen —
MR. SHAH: Yeah. The campaign or Mr. Cohen can address anything with respect to their actions. With respect to that interview, I will say the President strongly, clearly, and has consistently denied these underlying claims. And the only person who’s been inconsistent is the one making the claims.
Q Yeah, Raj. Regarding the Russia actions that were announced earlier today, the President has not personally said anything about the expulsion of these 60 diplomats. And in his phone call last week with President Putin, he decided not to confront Putin on the attack despite the advice he was given from his national security advisors. And he went on to congratulate Putin on that phone call. So how do you square the aggressive actions that the administration is taking with an entirely different approach from the President?
MR. SHAH: Well, I think there was a statement coming out from the Press Secretary on this. And the last sentence basically outlined our approach to this, which is our relationship with Russia is, frankly, up to the Russian government and up to Vladimir Putin and others in senior leadership in Russia.
We want to have a cooperative relationship. The President wants to work with Russia, but their actions sometimes don’t allow that to happen.
The poisoning in the UK that has kind of led to today’s announcement was a very brazen action. It was a reckless action. It endangered not just two individuals who were poisoned, but many civilians — many innocent civilians. And this is not the type of conduct that the United States or allies can accept. But the President still remains open to working with the Russians on areas of mutual concern — counterterrorism, for example, and others. But, you know, that’s really up to the Russians to decide.
Q But if the President believes it was a reckless and brazen action, why did he not say so to Putin, directly, when he spoke with him and had the opportunity to do that?
MR. SHAH: Well, he raised a number of issues and we did secure with Putin, on that call, some positive interaction when it comes to nuclear arms. So there were certainly positive developments on that call, and the President will continue diplomacy with Russia and with Putin. But, you know, this action by the President is very clear. We’re very heartened that it comes in conjunction with over a dozen allies, both in NATO and EU.
Q Thank you, Raj. You mentioned that it was brazen and that it was reckless. Does that attack on the soil of a valued ally rise to the level of an act of war? Is that the administration’s policy, here?
MR. SHAH: Well, we’ve been joined at the hip with the UK on this matter. We stand firmly with our ally. Again, I’ll classify this action as both brazen and reckless. And I don’t want to get ahead of anything the President may or may not announce or declare later on.
Q And if I could follow up very quickly —
MR. SHAH: Yeah.
Q You mentioned that the President continues to maintain his consistent story that he did not do what has been alleged by Ms. Daniels. Did he, by chance, watch the interview last night? Did you ask him about that?
MR. SHAH: You know, I’m not going to get into what the President may or may not have seen. I’ll just say that he’s consistently denied these allegations.
Q Thank you. Was the President aware of a physical threat made against Ms. Daniels when she was with her daughter back in 2011?
MR. SHAH: Well, the President doesn’t believe that any of the claims that Ms. Daniels made last night in the interview are accurate.
Q He doesn’t believe she was threatened?
MR. SHAH: No, he does not.
Q What’s his basis for that, Raj?
MR. SHAH: Sorry?
Q What’s his basis for that?
MR. SHAH: Well, he just doesn’t believe that — you know, there’s nothing to corroborate her claim.
Q And Raj, did he have dinner with Michael Cohen at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday?
MR. SHAH: Yeah, I believe he did.
Q Can you give us a readout of that? Did they discuss the interview with Stormy Daniels?
MR. SHAH: I don’t have any additional information on it.
Q So if he doesn’t believe her claims made in that TV interview, we can deduce he saw it from that?
MR. SHAH: Well, I’m — again, I’m not going to get into what he saw. There are clips of it playing all over in the morning new shows. What I’ll just say is that he’s denied the accusations that she made last night and has been consistent in doing so. She has not.
Q So on the expulsions, three weeks passed between the attacks and the expulsions. What took so long?
MR. SHAH: Well, I mean, actions like this take time and we coordinated with, again, over a dozen allies. We wanted this to be a joint effort in which the United States is joining both the European Union and NATO Allies.
Q And a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Minister is now threatening retaliation against the U.S. and other countries involved in these expulsions. Your response to that?
MR. SHAH: Look, we want to work with Russia, but this type of an action cannot be tolerated. The United States is responding to Russia’s action — as I called it, brazen and reckless. So this is a U.S. response. We want to work with Russia. You know, the ball is in their court with respect to how they want to respond.
Q If you listen to national security experts, diplomatic experts on what happened with Russia, they will say that you have to hit Russia where it hurts. You have to sanction them. Economically, you have to go after Putin’s cronies. You have to go after Putin himself, potentially. Would this President consider sanctioning Vladimir Putin or his cronies to punish him and the Russian government for what happened in the UK and also for meddling in the 2016 election?
MR. SHAH: Well, the United States has issued sanctions on key Russian oligarchs in response to the meddling in the 2016 election.
Q What about Putin himself?
MR. SHAH: So, I wouldn’t close any doors or I wouldn’t preclude any potential action. But the President doesn’t telegraph his moves.
Q And one other question about this weekend: There was this massive march here in Washington, led by the students from Parkland, Florida. The President did not tweet about it, he hasn’t really said anything about this. What is the White House response to this? And are the actions of the President signed into law last week strengthening some of the, I guess, background check systems and whatnot we have in this country? Is that the end of it? Is the President going to do any more on the gun safety issue? And what about that question that he asked of the Republican lawmakers here — “Are you afraid of the NRA?”
MR. SHAH: Look, the President does respect everyone’s First Amendment right and wants their voices to be heard. As you mentioned, there were actions that he signed into law on Friday in the omnibus bill. They included over $2 billion in new funding for school safety. He signed into law the STOP School Violence Act which was, actually, a priority of the Sandy Hook Promise Organization; and the Fix NICS bill, the background check portion that you mentioned.
Also on Friday, the Department of Justice announced a new rule which effectively banned the sale of bump stock devices. And the President is a strong believer in the Second Amendment, but he does believe other measures could potentially be taken both at the federal and also at the state level to improve school safety. He’s mentioned hardening schools. He’s talked about these extreme risk protective orders that states can engage in. So there’s a whole lot of things that can be done.
This Wednesday, the School Safety Commission that is chaired by Secretary DeVos will be meeting for the first time, and we hope some fruitful ideas can come from that.
Q Can you talk a little bit about David Shulkin? Is he going to be fired face-to-face or is it going to be through the media, on Twitter? Can you give us an update on that?
MR. SHAH: I have no personnel announcements to make at this time.
Q Raj, just to follow up on Stormy Daniels. Can you explain, Raj, why it has been the President’s practice, or the practice of those associated with the President, to offer compensation to people to keep them silent? Why would the President do that? And why has he done that or caused others to do that?
MR. SHAH: Well, I would have Michael — you can have Michael Cohen address any specifics regarding this agreement that you’re referring to. But, look, false charges are settled out of court all the time, and this is nothing outside the ordinary.
Q But why would, in this case, $130,000 be paid to a woman in the days before the election? You’re saying that she made false claims, but why, then, would $130,000 be paid to her?
MR. SHAH: Again, false charges are settled out of court all the time. You’d have to ask Michael Cohen about the specifics.
Q Does the President have any intention of responding directly himself? You’ve said that he denies the claims. Why haven’t we heard from him?
MR. SHAH: Well, that will be up to the President.
Q Thanks, Raj. On North Korea, Bloomberg has reported that Kim Jong-un is in China right now. Does the White House see that as a precursor to talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un? And has China offered to host that summit?
MR. SHAH: Well, you know, we can’t confirm those reports. We don’t know if they’re necessarily true. What I’ll just state, though, is that, you know, where we are with North Korea is in a better place than we used to be because the President’s maximum pressure campaign, in conjunction with dozens of countries around the world, has paid dividends and has brought the North Koreans to the table. So we’re looking forward to a potential summit some months in advance.
Q On Shulkin, does the White House believe that the nation’s veterans are best served by having David Shulkin serve as VA Secreatry?
MR. SHAH: Again, I have no personnel announcements to make at this time when it comes to —
Q How much longer should the Secretary expect to work in the administration?
MR. SHAH: Sorry, say that again.
Q How much longer should the Secretary expect to work in the administration?
MR. SHAH: Guys, I have no personnel announcements.
Q Thanks, Raj. The Israeli press is reporting that Prime Minister Netanyahu has begun informing French and German foreign ministers that the U.S. is very likely to pull out of the Iran deal in May. Can you confirm that?
MR. SHAH: Well, I can’t confirm that. What I can tell you is that the President has been pretty clear since January, where he gave some remarks about this, what he thinks of the Iran deal. In fact, that goes back years. He thinks it’s one of the worst agreements the United States has ever made internationally, and he is insistent on changes both at the congressional level working with Congress, and also with our European partners. If changes aren’t made, the President is prepared to potentially withdraw from the agreement.
Q Thanks a lot, Raj. In light of these announced expulsions of these 60 Russian intelligence agents, is the President still going full steam ahead in meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
MR. SHAH: Again, we have no announcements on a potential meeting or any kind of summit.
Q But you still want to do it, right?
MR. SHAH: Yeah. Again, as I said, we want to work with Russia. We have areas of mutual concern where we can work with them. Again, I mentioned counterterrorism. There’s general global stability and other matters where we can — we want to work with Russia. But that ball is in their court. It is up to them on whether we’re going to have a fruitful and constructive relationship or an adversarial relationship.
Q But why give that gift of meeting with the President after they’ve done what the U.S. not just alleges — say they have done? They’ve poisoned a former Russian spy on British soil, and you’ve punished them for it. Why, at this point, also give them this gift of meeting with the President of the United States?
MR. SHAH: Well, again, there’s no meeting to announce.
Q Thanks, Raj. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said this weekend that there might be some kind of workaround for a Supreme Court ruling that said line-item vetoes are unconstitutional. What is that workaround, and is that something that the White House is aggressively pursuing and is going to propose that Congress take care of?
MR. SHAH: Well, the President outlined on Friday why he was very frustrated with the legislation that he was given. It was a massive spending bill handed to him at the eleventh hour. You know, spending by Congress hasn’t really been executed properly since 1996. They haven’t had individual spending bills for over two decades.
And so this omnibus process, the President wants to reform. He’s talked about ending the filibuster. He’s talked about a line-item veto. Obviously, it has to pass constitutional muster — anything that’s passed. But he wants to fix the budget process. And, you know, his message to leaders in Congress of both parties is that if something similar happens again, he’s much more inclined to veto it.
Q On the line-item veto in particular, though, have you been able to find a workaround to that Supreme Court ruling that says it’s unconstitutional?
MR. SHAH: Well, there are certain things being discussed with respect to House and Senate rules. I don’t want to get ahead of anything that we may come out in favor of.
Q Yeah. Thank you, Raj. Two questions. First, last week Senator Barrasso, the Republican Whip, made a very strong speech in which he denounced, as Marc Short did, the necessity to use cloture on all appointments, and he called for a new agreement similar to the bipartisan agreement Senator Schumer had with Republicans in 2013, allowing several votes on a nomination to come up and not requiring the cloture so much. Have you talked to Senator Barrasso about this, or has the President talked to him? And is that something the administration endorses?
MR. SHAH: Well, I’m not aware of a White House conversation with Senator Barrasso. I haven’t spoken to him. You know, I would generally agree with the concept. But having not seen all the details, I don’t want to commit to it.
Q The other thing is that Egypt is having an election this week, and all signs are President Al Sisi will be reelected without much opposition. Does the President plan to call him?
MR. SHAH: I don’t have any call plans to read out to you.
Q Thanks, Raj. The President spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. Today, we saw this major action by the United States to expel these 60 diplomats and, additionally, close the consulate in Seattle. Why did the President not bring up this poisoning of a former Russian spy with President Putin when he spoke with him on the phone?
MR. SHAH: Well, as I mentioned earlier, the President did discuss a range of issues with Vladimir Putin. But, you know, he’s addressed this matter publicly and repeatedly addressed it. After he spoke with Prime Minister May, he addressed it in the quad statement, and, you know, with this action right now.
So the President has made his position and the country’s position pretty clear.
Q And if I could ask you about Shulkin. I’m not looking for a personnel announcement here; I’d simply like to ask you, how would you describe the relationship between President Trump and VA Secretary Shulkin?
MR. SHAH: Well, I haven’t asked the President about it directly, today. So I don’t want to comment on it too specifically.
Q Thanks very much, Raj. You said earlier that the only person who’s been inconsistent is the one making these claims, meaning Stormy Daniels. What has she said that’s inconsistent?
MR. SHAH: Well, my understanding is that she signed some statements that conflict with what she said last night.
Q Thanks, Raj. There have a been cascade of expulsion announcements from around the globe today. I think some 130 diplomats across 18 countries. What was the U.S. role in this? And can you tell us a little bit more about the President’s role in what looks like a pretty coordinated effort?
MR. SHAH: Yeah. Well, this was a coordinated effort, and the President spoke with many foreign leaders — our European allies and others — and encouraged them to join the United States in this announcement.
We think that this is not just an important message to send to the Russian government, but it’s also significant in degrading their intelligence capabilities around the world, not just in the United States.
Q Raj, the President has come out strongly about the importance that law enforcement plays in this country. Has he commented at all about the shooting death of Stephon Clark? He was unarmed, shot by a police officer. A lot of protests happening across the country as a result.
MR. SHAH: I’m not aware of any comments that he has. I haven’t asked him about that directly. Obviously, the President cares about any individual who would be harmed through no fault of their own. I don’t know the specifics in that case, and I don’t want to comment any further.
All right. Thanks, folks.