Watch: White House Press Briefing with Raj Shah 5-14-18 [video + transcript]
Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- Oil sanctions against Iran
- Dedication and opening of the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem [Live Stream]
- Hamas driven violence at Palestine-Israel border
- Cooperation of White House with China on ZTE
- U.S. – North Korea denuclearization summit
The briefing is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. EDT.
MR. SHAH: Good afternoon, everyone. Seventy years ago today, President Harry Truman recognized Israel as an independent country. Today, the United States officially opened our embassy in the capital of Jerusalem.
After decades of past Presidents promising to move the embassy, only to fail to follow through, President Trump has fulfilled his promise to support one of Americas strongest allies.
As you all saw, to celebrate the opening, the Trump administration sent a high-level delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. The delegation included Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor Ivanka Trump, and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt.
Today is a great day for Israel and the United States, and a reminder to everyone that when President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it.
I’m also announcing today that next Tuesday, May 22nd, the President will address the Susan B. Anthony Lists 11th annual Campaign for Life gala at the National Building Museum, where he will discuss the many actions he has taken to protect the lives of the unborn and defend religious liberty.
This morning, the President had a call with James Shaw Jr. to commend his heroic actions and quick thinking last month at a Waffle House in Tennessee. Mr. Shaw saved lives when he wrestled a gun from an active shooter who had opened fire.
Lastly, over the weekend, we sadly saw another terrorist attack in central Paris. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with the French people and their government against this vicious act of terrorism, and pledge any assistance needed.
With that, Ill take your questions. John.
Q Raj, a couple, if I could. At the same time there was a celebratory air in Jerusalem as the U.S. was moving its embassy, in the south of Israel, along the border with Gaza, there was a lot of violence that resulted in more than 41 people losing their lives. Is the President concerned about the demonstrations there and Israel’s response to people trying to climb over the fence?
MR. SHAH: Well, we’re aware of the reports of continued violence in Gaza today. The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response. And as the Secretary of State said, Israel has the right to defend itself.
Q Also, what’s the President’s thinking on ZTE? I mean, here is a company that violated U.S. rules regarding doing business with North Korea and Iran. It was, according to the Commerce Department, appropriately sanctioned for that and fined $1.2 billion. You had the heads of six intelligence agencies telling Congress back on February 13th that they wouldn’t use ZTE devices because of counterespionage concerns. They also wouldn’t recommend that American citizens use ZTE or Huawei devices. So what’s the President’s thinking with that tweet over the weekend about wanting to rescue ZTE?
MR. SHAH: Obviously, this is part of a very complex relationship between the United States and China that involves economic issues, national security issues, and the like. And it’s an issue of high concern for China that’s been raised with the U.S. government and with our administration at various levels. So the President has asked Secretary Ross to look into it consistent with applicable laws and regulations.
Q I guess I wanted to follow on that. Did the President give Secretary Ross any specific instructions on how he wanted that case to go? And when you say that it was “raised,” I assume you mean in the context of the ongoing trade discussions between the U.S. and China. So is there a, sort of, direct linkage there, where China could make a concession on retaliatory tariffs, and so we’d see from the U.S., kind of, easing back on ZTE?
MR. SHAH: Well, he’s asked Secretary Ross to look into the matter, again, consistent with applicable laws and regulations. And it’s been brought up at a number of levels, you know, as part of bilateral talks on a number of issues. So I wouldn’t restrict it to just the talks that you’re referencing.
Q A follow on that, Raj.
MR. SHAH: Yeah.
Q Didn’t the Commerce Department make an independent judgment when they decided to issue this sanction against ZTE? So can you talk about the significance of bringing it up again now? How much does it have to do with the impending summit with North Korea? You know, critics will say that the President wants China’s support, needs China’s support, and that is why he is now backing off on this sanction against ZTE.
MR. SHAH: It’s part of, again, the U.S. relationship with China, which is complex. It has economic factors; it has national security factors. This is just one of many factors. And, again, the President is asking the Secretary of Commerce to look into the matter consistent with laws and regulation.
Q Thanks, Raj. Senator Lindsey Graham said, “I [just] wish somebody from the White House would tell the country that” — what Kelly Sadler said — “was inappropriate,” that that’s not who we are as a Trump administration. Why not just apologize, so America doesn’t think that that is an acceptable way of speaking inside this White House?
MR. SHAH: Well, I understand the focus on this issue, but it’s going to be dealt with, and has been dealt with internally. I was told —
MR. SHAH: Hang on. I was told Kelly Sadler called the McCain family late last week and did apologize. And beyond that, I dont have further comment.
Q Excuse me, but she — Kelly Sadler told Meghan McCain that she would apologize publicly, and that has not yet happened. Why has that not happened?
MR. SHAH: Well, I wasnt on the call. I was told she made it prior to the story being published, and she apologized for the comment. She apologized directly to the family.
Q Are there any concerns that this White House seems more concerned about the fact that there was a leak than about the content of what was said?
MR. SHAH: Well, I think we’re concerned about all sorts of matters, but this is an internal matter, it’s being addressed internally. And I dont have anything further to add.
Q But can you explain how it’s being addressed internally?
MR. SHAH: Obviously, if I explain all that, then it won’t remain internal.
Q But she’s still employed here at the White House?
MR. SHAH: She is still an employee here at the White House. She came to work today.
Q Why hasnt she publicly apologized, as she told Meghan McCain that she would?
MR. SHAH: She has addressed it with the family directly, and I dont have anything further to add.
Q Okay, really quick, Raj — on ZTE, how does the President Trump statement that too many Chinese jobs are at risk square with his campaign promise that China is stealing American jobs?
MR. SHAH: Well, I dont think this has, frankly, any bearing on the President’s campaign promises. Let’s just look at the overall economic record, right? The President has overseen an economy in which we have the lowest unemployment rate since 2000; it’s at 3.9 percent. Over 2 million jobs have been created since this President took office. And with respect to trade with China, he’s been tough. Let’s put this in a context. I mean, this President has taken China to task for its unfair trade practices. Through this Section 301 investigation, he’s introduced and proposed over — or rather, up to $150 billion of tariffs on China for intellectual property theft, dumping, and a range of inimical Chinese economic action.
So he’s been tough and he’s confronted them. But on this issue specifically, he’s asked the Secretary of Commerce to take a look at it.
Q Hi, Raj. The death toll is over 50 in Gaza. Is the U.S. calling on Israel to use restraint in dealing with these protests?
MR. SHAH: Well, we believe that Hamas is responsible for these tragic deaths; that their rather cynical exploitation of the situation is what’s leading to these deaths. And we want them to stop.
Q So there’s no burden on Israel to do something to, sort of, rein it in?
MR. SHAH: No, we think that we shouldnt lose sight of the fact that Hamas is the one that, frankly, bear responsibility for the dire situation right now in Gaza.
Q Lastly, Raj, how does this — the United States had been wanting to put out a peace plan. How does today’s situation hurt that?
MR. SHAH: I dont think it hurts the peace plan. The peace plan will be introduced at the appropriate time. But what today is about is following through on what the President promised and believes. And it’s also a recognition of reality. I think we’ve, for decades, walked on eggshells, pretending that Jerusalem isnt the capital of Israel when it obviously is. And this is just a recognition of reality.
Q Raj, there seemed to be some confusion, given the messages on the Sunday news shows from Secretary Pompeo and National Security Bolton about what exactly the U.S. is asking of North Korea. Is the administration’s position that the U.S. expects the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Peninsula and of North Korea? Or is the administration willing to accept something short of that?
MR. SHAH: I dont want to get ahead of negotiations, but our policy has been to pursue the complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that’s going to be the purpose of the June 12th meeting.
Q And I was wondering also if you could address a little bit the criticism of the President’s, sort of, tone with the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, saying that the treated the U.S. detainees excellently. The President’s rhetoric has certainly shifted on Kim Jong-un, and I’m wondering if you could explain why, and whether he thinks that, at all, that he is going too far in sort of praising Kim Jong-un.
MR. SHAH: Well, I think the President’s rhetoric has reflected Kim Jong-un’s actions. I think that Kim Jong-un has stepped forward and made pledges to halt nuclear tests, halt ICBM tests, and now has released these three prisoners. And those are signs of good faith, and we hope to build on that.
Q If I can, very quickly, the French Foreign Minister, Raj, said about what’s taking place in Gaza — he urged Israeli authorities to exercise discretion and restraint. So to be clear, does the U.S. not agree with the French that Israeli authorities should exercise discretion and restraint?
MR. SHAH: We believe that Hamas is responsible for what’s going on.
Q So there’s no responsibility beyond that on the Israeli authorities? Kill at will?
MR. SHAH: What I’m saying is that we believe that Hamas, as an organization, is engaged in cynical action that’s leading to these deaths.
Q Let me ask you if I can, and following up on Kelly Sadler today — Matt Schlapp, whose wife you know — Mercedes Schlapp — works here —
MR. SHAH: Yes.
Q — is the Head of Strategic Communications — portrayed Kelly Sadler as “a little bit of a victim here.” Do you agree that she is a little bit of a victim here? And why?
MR. SHAH: Well, again, the matter is going to be addressed — has been addressed internally. But what I will say is that when you work, in any work environment — you with your colleagues at NBC, or elsewhere — if you don’t — if you aren’t able, in internal meetings, to speak your mind or convey thoughts or say anything that you feel without feeling like your colleagues will betray you, that creates a very difficult work environment. I think anybody who works anywhere can recognize that.
Q Is there any environment where that — conveying that thought — would be viewed as appropriate?
MR. SHAH: Again, I’m not going to address it any further. It’s been —
Q So to be clear, was it completed last week? You said it was dealt with internally. Has anything been dealt with since last week when she called the family — the McCain family — for clarity?
MR. SHAH: She called the McCain family. I’m not going to address it anymore from the podium.
Q I might ask you an indelicate question.
MR. SHAH: Sure.
Q It’s been reported that you were leading the meeting where Kelly Sadler said what she said. How did it strike you? Did you find it to be inappropriate? And how did — what was the reaction in the room?
MR. SHAH: Look, this is not about my opinion or anybody else’s opinion. It’s an internal matter, and we’ve addressed it internally.
Q Two questions. First, the White House is hosting some kind of meeting on Wednesday with California officials on sanctuary cities. Can you tell us what that’s about? Will the President attend? And what’s the point of the meeting?
MR. SHAH: Well, I can’t obviously get ahead of the meeting. But look, the Department of Justice is engaged in certain litigation regarding sanctuary cities in California. We believe that California should help us, and all municipalities and states should help the federal government in enforcing federal law, in helping to deport — when appropriate — criminal, illegal immigrants, and help, I guess, stem the tide of illegal immigration in the United States. It’s actually on the rise now. It’s a point of frustration for the President and for the administration. So that will be part of, obviously, what’s discussed.
Q So there’s no negotiation. This is just to solidify your point? I think —
MR. SHAH: I’m saying that I’m not going to get ahead of the meeting.
Q Okay. And my second question is: The President is going to Capitol Hill tomorrow to meet with Senate Republicans. Can you tell us about that meeting and the topic of the conversation? And also, do you think he will not get asked by senators about the Kelly Sadler issue?
MR. SHAH: Well, obviously you’ll have to ask senators what they’ll ask him.
Q Does he have a statement prepared?
MR. SHAH: I think he will be discussing the administration’s agenda. I think a focus of that will be on appointees and getting the President’s team in place, particularly Gina Haspel, who we believe should be confirmed as the next CIA Director.
This is an individual who’s had over three decades of exemplary service and experience with the CIA. And we hope that the Senate takes it upon themselves to confirm here.
Q Besides the CIA, is there another issue? It’s not solely to talk about Gina.
MR. SHAH: It’s to talk about the administration’s agenda, broadly.
Q The Trump Organization is involved in a project in Indonesia building hotels, golf courses, residences. It’s getting up to $500 million in backing from the Chinese government. Can you tell or explain the administration’s perspective on, A, how this wouldn’t violate the emoluments clause, and, B, how it wouldn’t violate the President’s own promise that his private organization would not be getting involved in new foreign deals while he was President?
MR. SHAH: I’ll have to refer you to the Trump Organization.
Q No, but I mean the Trump Organization can’t speak on behalf of the President, as the President — the head of the federal government, the one who is responsible — who needs to assure the American people that (inaudible) responsibility.
MR. SHAH: And you’re asking — but you’re asking about a private organization’s dealings that may have to do with a foreign government. That’s not something that I can speak to.
Q So, Raj, a couple of things. I need some information — we all need more information about the conversation that the President had by phone with James Shaw Jr. and why wasn’t it here at the White House. And also, what about prison reform? If you could give us a little bit more about prison reform. We understand that that’s working its way and there is a big push from the White House.
And also, on Sadler, where does decency and morality come in, into play, in the workplace? I mean, she still has a job. She made that statement about an American hero. No matter what the political feelings are about him, he was broken and bruised overseas for the freedoms of this country. And to say those things, I mean —
MR. SHAH: Again, that’s an internal matter and has been addressed internally.
Q She keeps her job, right?
MR. SHAH: Yes.
You mentioned prison reform. We’re pleased to see last week the House mark up, with a pretty broad bipartisan vote, prison reform legislation that the White House is supportive of, that particularly Jared Kushner has been very involved with. You know, we believe that that legislation can help reduce costs at prisons and improve quality. We hope to see it looked at at the House floor and eventually pass the Senate.
And with respect to James Shaw, it was a conversation that the President asked to have and —
Q Why not here at the White House? Why not — I mean, he’s saluting heroes.
MR. SHAH: I honestly, I don’t know if he was invited. I just honestly don’t have more for you on that.
Q Thank you, Raj. I wanted to ask you about the embassy opening today. The person who delivered the invocation, Robert Jeffress, he’s made some statements in the past that he believes that Muslims are going to hell, Jews are going to hell, Hindus are going to hell. Do you think that, considering especially his remarks about Jews, that he’s one of the right people to speak at the opening of our embassy in Israel? And can you give us a little information on how that came to be?
MR. SHAH: Well, I honestly don’t know how that came to be. And I know that Pastor Jeffress has had a strong relationship with many people in the faith community, as well as folks in the administration, and Republicans on the Hill, and others, and I believe Democrats as well. So I think that he has a longstanding involvement with public officials. You know, beyond that, I don’t really have a whole lot to add.
Q Do you think it’s appropriate for a person who thinks that — who said that Jews are going to hell, to speak at the opening of our embassy in Israel?
MR. SHAH: I haven’t seen those remarks, but obviously those aren’t remarks that the President agrees with.
Q So, I have two questions for you. First on ZTE. Did the Chinese government give any specific concession for the President of the United States to tweet in support of a Chinese company?
MR. SHAH: No — the President has asked Secretary Ross to look into the matter, consistent with —
Q But why did he do that?
MR. SHAH: The issue has been raised at many levels by the Chinese government with the various levels of our administration.
Q So just raising the issue was enough to spawn a presidential tweet and directive?
MR. SHAH: Well, it’s a significant issue of concern to the Chinese government. And in our bilateral relationship there’s a give-and-take and we discuss these issues.
Q And then another on the President’s tweet on Paris. He said that America needs to change its thought processes. What did he mean by that? What was he hinting at?
MR. SHAH: Well, I think that — you know, I think that the President wants the United States to be tough on terrorists, wants our government to be tough on terrorists. I haven’t asked him about that specific tweet, but I think his thoughts on how to address terrorism are pretty clear, both through a legal system, through our international — through our foreign affairs policy. So just understanding the existential threat that terrorists pose to American citizens and addressing it accordingly.
Q Raj, on the issue of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when was the last time the White House reached out to Palestinian leadership? And will — given the high numbers of casualties, Palestinians calling what has happened today a “massacre,” will the White House be reaching out?
MR. SHAH: Well, I don’t honestly have an answer for you on that. I’ll get back to you.
Q Okay. Can I just follow up then?
MR. SHAH: Sure.
Q Jared Kushner, in his speech, pointed a finger at the Palestinians, saying they were responsible for provoking violence. But given the fact that it’s only Palestinians who are being killed, should Israel not shoulder some of the blame?
MR. SHAH: Well, as I said earlier, we believe Hamas bears the responsibility. Look, this is a propaganda attempt. I mean, this is a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt. I think the Israeli government has spent weeks trying to handle this without violence, and we find it very unfortunate.
Q But people were throwing rocks 50 meters from the wall and were faced with sniper attack. I mean, is the White House in denial of the split-screen reality that’s occurring?
MR. SHAH: Again, we believe that Hamas is responsible for this. Blake.
Q Let me ask you on ZTE. The congressional hearing that John was talking, in which the intelligence chief said that people should not be using ZTE products because of security concerns, does the President himself believe that there is a security concern using — involved with ZTE?
MR. SHAH: I haven’t asked him about that. But again, he has asked the Commerce Department to look into this matter consistent with applicable laws and regulations.
Q Speaking of the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross said at the National Press Club just a little while ago — he said of the meeting this upcoming week with the Chinese, he said, “It wouldn’t surprise me” if they bring up ZTE, but our position is that it would be an enforcement action separate from trade. Is that the position of the White House, that whatever may or may not happen with ZTE, that has nothing to do with trade negotiations? Or does it?
MR. SHAH: Well, I think Secretary Ross speaks for the U.S. government on this matter. And the President has asked him to look into it. I haven’t seen those remarks, and I’m sure there will be some follow-up conversation, but he does reflect our view.
Q And on the Supreme Court decision today on sports gambling that allows, now, states to go forward with that, does the White House have any opinion one way or another on the decision today?
MR. SHAH: I don’t have a reaction for you just yet.
Q Raj, on Israel, the United States and the White House are hoping to release their peace plan in the next few months. Going back to that split screen, I understand that you’re blaming these on Hamas, but does the White House feel that the position is undermined now by these deaths that have happened today? Last time the count was at 52.
MR. SHAH: No, we don’t. Look, the peace plan will be brought forward at the appropriate time. It can be evaluated on its merits. But the actions today, both the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem and these tragedies in southern Israel, we don’t think will impact the peace plan.
Q And on a different foreign policy topic, sort of. The President isn’t going to the Royal Wedding this weekend. Today, we saw him deliver a video address at the embassy opening. Will he deliver an address of some sort via video? Is he sending a gift? Is there anything you can tell us about that?
MR. SHAH: I don’t have anything for you. (Laughter.) Yes.
Q Last month, Sarah said that the allegations against the Governor —
MR. SHAH: Sorry, say it again.
Q Last month, Sarah said the allegations against the Governor of Missouri were concerning. The Governor now is on trial this week. Does the President believe he should resign? He’s campaigned with him, he’s been out with him, he’s met him several times. Does he believe he should resign, irrespective of the verdict? Or if the verdict comes down in his favor, should he not resign?
MR. SHAH: I’ll have to get back to you on that. I don’t have anything.
Q Thank you, Raj. So, later this week, Thursday and Friday, Chinese officials are supposed to be here in D.C. to have continued trade meetings. Can you tell us which U.S. officials and which Chinese officials are going to be involved in those; what the President hopes to come out of those continued talks — this round of those talks? And has the administration provided — I know Larry Kudlow had mentioned at one point that the administration was considering providing a list of what they would like to see out of these trade negotiations.
MR. SHAH: Well, some of those details, the participants in particular, have yet to be determined. And we’ll provide that information when it’s ready.
But look, the U.S.-China relationship, again, is a complex one. We believe that China has engaged in decades of unfair trade practices — forced technology transfers and the like. That was part of the discussion that went on when the U.S. delegation — or U.S. group of administration officials went to China. And that’s going to be continued later this week.
All right. Last question. Hunter.
Q Thank you, Raj. You said before that you hadn’t heard Pastor Jeffress’s remarks. Among other things he said, “Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduismthey leave people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell.” I also wanted to talk about Pastor John Hagee, who was involved in that ceremony. He once said that Hitler was an instrument of God.
Separate from that, on Sunday, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump met with Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi in Israel. And he once compared black people to monkeys. So I’m wondering, in all three of these instances can you tell us anything about how these people were brought into the ceremonies? And do you think it’s regrettable that people with these views were involved with the American government?
MR. SHAH: I don’t have any readout on how they became involved with these events. All I’ll say is that those specific views that you outlined, if they’re accurate reflections of what was said, wouldn’t be embraced by this White House. Beyond that, I don’t have anything else.
Thanks a lot, folks.